Category: Science Fiction

Jul 15 2014

Videophiled: Scarlett Johansson gets ‘Under the Skin’

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Under the Skin (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) isn’t a film that wants to make things easy for the viewer. The experience is not unlike that which I suppose its unnamed protagonist, an alien reborn in the body of a human host (Scarlett Johansson), goes through as it (she?) settles in to its new body and the emotions and impulses surging through it that collide with its mission. That mission has something to do with driving around Scotland and picking up men that it appears to devour in a pool of lightless liquid. That’s my best guess—there’s no exposition or explanation to clue you in to what it all means—but it’s all quite strange and beautiful and weird.

This is the first feature from Jonathan Glazer since Birth (a film that had its share of critics but has grown to almost cult stature in some circles since its 2004 release) in part because he did not want to compromise his vision. The film opens on abstracted sounds, like a human voice learning its sonic possibilities, and enigmatic imagery, and Glazer expects us to create our own meaning from the clues we take in along the odyssey. The defining color is black, the inky night of her nocturnal hunts and the deep, bottomless dark of her alien retreat. The characters seems to float untethered in these scenes, as if they’ve slipped into another reality.

Glazer is less interested in the what and the why than in the texture of the experience, the intensity of the imagery, the sense of adaptation and alienation as this alien starts to connect with her victims. Johansson delivers a performance like she’s never given, slipping between a focused, unreadable blankness and the easy charm of a young Scottish woman chatting up the men she picks up in her van, a part she keeps perfecting as she gets a feel for the culture of Glasgow at night. (Some of the scenes were shot with a hidden camera as civilians were picked up by Johansson in character, like a reality show in the Twilight Zone, and Johansson is not only game for the stunt, she’s quite adept at it.) This is a film of sensations best experienced in an immersive environment; watch this on the biggest screen you are able to, with the lights out and distractions kept to a minimum, to best fall under its spell.

On Blu-ray and DVD, with “The Making of Under the Skin,” a 42-minute collection of brief featurettes covering various aspects of production. The production is as unconventional as the film story and direction and these featurettes share some of the process. The Blu-ray also includes an UltraViolet digital copy. Also available on Cable On Demand.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital and VOD at Cinephiled

Jul 08 2014

Videophiled: Imagining ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

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Jodorowsky’s Dune (Sony, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, Cable VOD) is probably not “the greatest science film never made,” as the movie poster tagline insists, but this journey through the most improbable screen epic embarked upon in the seventies isn’t really about mourning what could have been. Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of the aggressively trippy cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, is a spellbinder of a storyteller and it’s not hard to get caught up in the vision he spins of his dream adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel, which he and his producer, Michel Seydoux, managed to option. With his artistic idealism and beaming smile (the man lights up with creative energy whenever he starts describing his vision of the film), Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is intoxicating. It’s no wonder he attracted such a passionately loyal and dedicated team of collaborators—his “warriors,” as he called them—along the way, including artists Jean “Moebius” Girard, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, special effects designer Dan O’Bannon, and actors Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali.

If filmmaker Frank Pavich gets caught up in the dreams of the Jodorowsky and his warriors and the hyperbole of commentators like Richard Stanley and Nicolas Winding Refn, filmmakers who proclaim the project some kind of lost masterpiece so visionary that Hollywood was scared of the possibilities, he at least gives voice to the more measured response of the Hollywood studios via producer Gary Kurtz. Any practical look at the project finds a rickety foundation built on promises rather than contracts, a budget insufficient to meet the scope of Jodorowsky’s ideas, and elaborate special effects beyond anything Hollywood would accomplish for years to come. And that doesn’t even address Jodorowsky’s utter dismissal of studio concerns of his ability to create a commercial film for the millions of dollars he was asking for. He was ready to make a 12-hour epic if that’s what his muse demanded.

What’s most interesting is not that the project failed to get made but that it got as far as it did and Jodorowsky and Pavich let us revel in the conceptual art, costume and character designs, storyboards, musical concepts and other elements that Jodorowsky pulled together for his presentation. He gives us an art movie of a space opera with a spiritual message and a mad poetry to its execution. And rather than treat this as a wake for a stillborn film (as many of the interview subjects do), Jodorowsky celebrates the entire endeavor as a creative effort in its own right, which inspired ideas that he used in other projects. It’s unlikely that he could have brought to the screen anything resembling the grand vision he shares with us given his resources and the technology of the era, but it sure is exciting it imagine, and that imagination is what powers the film: the sense of artistic freedom, idealism, freewheeling creativity at work in the preparation, and the excitement he raised in his warriors, inspiring them to imagine beyond what had been done before. That is a work of art in its own right.

The Blu-ray+DVD Combo also includes 46 minutes of deleted scenes, or rather expanded sections that explore elements of the project in more detail than the finished film allows.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

May 27 2014

Videophiled: ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ – The Birth of Doctor Who

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An Adventure in Space and Time (Warner, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is a TV movie made for the BBC but it is a movie nonetheless, a bit of pop culture celebration that takes on the creation of Doctor Who in 1963 (just in time for the 50th Anniversary!). Scripted by veteran Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss and produced by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s sweet, it’s sentimental and it’s nostalgic. It’s also unexpectedly engaging as a piece of light historical drama made with an affectionate passion and more than a hint of the BBC series The Hour in its observations of the inner workings of the broadcaster half a century ago.

David Bradley plays William Hartnell, the aging veteran actor who reluctantly takes on the role in what he sees as just a kid’s show, and Jessica Raine is Verity Lambert, the former production assistant given the assignment of creating a prime time family show by her mentor (Brian Cox), now a ranking executive at the Beeb. She’s the first female producer at BBC and her director, Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), was a rare director of Indian descent, and their stories are a small but important part of this portrait of an institution in transition. Together they overcome budgetary limitations with flights of fantasy and creative special effects and the show recreates iconic events in the first four years of the series, from the series debut getting clobbered when it had the unfortunate luck of showing the night (British time) of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the first appearance of the Daleks to the explosion of Who-mania in Britain.

The Hartnell we’re presented here is a prickly old man who isn’t always easy to deal with but brings a warmth to the role of The Doctor. Bradley has played his share of grumpy old men, notably the caretaker Filch in the “Harry Potter” films, but he’s quite touching here as the frail veteran who, in the last years of his long career, becomes a pop culture sensation. It’s a late reward that takes its toll—he’s old, losing his memory, and exhausted by the demands of the role—and he offers a poignant performance.

For fans of the show, it’s a loving recreation of the original series art design and special effects along with key moments and characters of the show, but it’s more than simply an extended exercise in insider fandom. If all you know is the current incarnation, this is an entertaining, informative, and rather moving introduction to the birth of the phenomenon.

The Blu-ray+DVD Combo includes a featurette, deleted scenes, recreations of original Who scenes using original Marconi camera, and a bonus DVD featuring the first Doctor Who adventure, “An Unearthly Child,” starring William Hartnett at the Doctor and directed by Waris Hussein.

More New Releases at Cinephiled

May 18 2014

Videophiled: 11 Classic ‘Godzilla’ Romps Across Three Decades

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Remakes have a tendency to revive interest in the originals, at least as far as the studios are concerned. They roll out new editions rolling on disc and digital streams in anticipation of interest and the new Godzilla has no shortage of ancestors: 28 Japanese Godzilla features (and one American film that is best not spoken of) from the 1954 original to the final Japanese appearance in the 50th Anniversary feature Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

Eleven of those films are newly released on Blu-ray this month, spanning forty years of Japanese giant monster madness. Not all of them are masterpieces (or even particularly good, to be honest) but a couple of them are classic and most of them are great fun. And through them all, Godzilla is incarnated by a stuntman in a suit stomping through miniature cities and landscapes while an overcranked camera filmed it at high speed to give a dreamy, slightly-slow motion look and a sense of mass and size to the monster battles. The process is affectionately known as suitmation.

Kraken, an imprint of anime specialist Section23, has three pictures from the first wave of Godzilla film, known to the kaiju cognoscenti as the Showa Period. One of them, the 1971 Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Kraken/Section23, Blu-ray, DVD), originally released in the US as Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, is the trippiest picture of the entire cycle. It’s a Mod-zilla mixing of pop music, hip nightclub scenes and psychedelic imagery with an environmental message and the pollution spawned monster.

That’s right, Hedorah is born of pollution and toxic waste, growing from a bizarre black tadpole to a weird, blobby slime monster (the name, in fact, is a pun on the word hedoro, the Japanese term for sludge or slime) through osmosis and a voracious appetite for pollution. In the film’s most memorable (and unabashadly druggiest) scene, Hedorah grows legs (or something similar that provides landfall locomotion), ambles up to a smokestack belching black smoke and huffs it down like a stoner with a giant, putrid bong. Sounds like a solution for pollution, right? Except that Hedorah oozes poison gas as a by-product, which itself evolves from a knock-out gas to an acid fog that eats its victims down to the bone. Yes, this is the first Godzilla film since the debut that leaves victims littered across the screen. Even Godzilla is affected by it, and when he punches Hedorah, his arms simply sink into the creature, like it was made of sludge.

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'Godzilla vs. Hedorah'

The series had been sliding into juvenile silliness for a few years and Banno was brought in to recharge the series. He has some big ideas for this mod monster party and the environmentalist theme is unmistakable, but the seriousness of the message is somewhat upended with the pop-art playfulness of his direction. Animated interludes are interspersed, providing anything from pseudo-educational illustrations for scientific exposition to mere cartoonish doodling, and a dour sequence featuring refugees from the affected cities rendered in black and white jolts to color a teen hipster grabs a guitar and leads a rock band in a high energy dance party in the middle of a rural field. Less endearing is the woozy new Godzilla theme with a wah-wah trombone that suggests the comic stumbling of a wobbly drunk rather than the mighty threat of a prehistoric creature with an atomic upgrade. And for this one film only, Godzilla flies, and it’s not dignified by any measure. He tucks his tail between his legs, turns around, and uses the force of his radioactive breath as a jet propulsion to chase Hedorah flying backwards.

It’s truly bizarre and quite a trip, and it was too much for Toho Studios. A planned sequel was scrapped, Banno was bounced from the franchise and journeyman director Jun Fukuda brought back. Some fans hate the film. I think the sheer oddity of the creative chemistry makes it one of the most strangely entertaining entries of the entire series.

More Godzilla releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Mar 04 2014

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

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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

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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.

Continue reading at Today.com

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’

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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.

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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

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