Direct to video horror/SciFi stuff starring Rutger Hauer is basically my bread and butter so I was very excited to see Crossworlds drop on Amazon prime after trying to score a DVD for years, to no avail. An inter dimensional travel flick with Hauer as a sort of Gandalf/Jedi/salt of the earth time machine mechanic hybrid sounds like a dream come true but unfortunately this one just never seems to be able to get it up past lukewarm, and I fear that budget is mostly the reason. It’s clear that this thing didn’t have all that many bucks thrown at it to play with and in a SciFi with this snazzy of a concept you just need to have impressive effects and better world building. Hauer’s sarcastic sage warrior is on a quest with a younger protege (Andrea Roth) to recruit a human college kid (Josh Charles) from our world and use his birthright talisman to thwart an evil organization from using it to combine all the parallel dimensions of the universe into one big ‘dimension gumbo’, thus eradicating the natural borders of the cosmos and promoting utter chaos. That sounds way cooler in writing than it does in the actual film too and unfortunately most of it is just running, chasing, clunky fight scenes and undercooked exposition without any real substance or flow. Charles as the lead is about as vanilla and lacking in charisma as they come, which hurts the film, while Hauer is wonderful as ever playing up the curmudgeonly aspects of his character and rocking a duster trench-coat like the badass he is. Roth I’ve always been fond of and she’s great too but the role is underwritten and she seems bored for most of it, while a very young and very drunk Jack Black steals a scene or three as a loud mouthed college bro. The film finds some torque when Stuart Wilson shows up as the scheming villain; Stuart is an actor who is pretty much incapable of boring or subpar work (much like Hauer) and he makes this guy someone you love to hate and turns every flatly written line into a mischievous flourish. But he nor Hauer can ultimately save this from the muddled doldrums it consistently wanders into and it’s frustrating because there’s a crackerjack premise somewhere in there that was just given half assed treatment both in the screenwriting phase and in production/execution and it shows. Perhaps one day someone with more money and a clearer vision will give this another shot.
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a film I had slept on since I was a teenager and saw it it ominously leering off the shelf of Blockbuster with stark, gooey VHS cover art that promised a nearly sentient looking narrative and atmospheric horror experience that perhaps I wasn’t ready for, because I always passed it by. I’m kind of glad I waited until now to see it because I was fully able to appreciate what a rich, textured, detailed and seemingly impenetrable but inexplicably profound piece of art it is, not to mention just a gorgeously gonzo exercise in some of the absolute fucking BEST practical effects I’ve ever seen in cinema. James Woods is Max Renn, a freewheeling television producer whose time slot is dedicated to violence and scum because, as he cavalierly rationalizes it, that’s what people want to see. One day he discovers a mysterious scrambled signal broadcasting a show just about violence, murder and torture, a show that seems to be a bit too close to the real thing. His search for the origin and producer of this bizarre output takes him on a horrifying cosmic journey of mind-melding, body mutilating chaos as the signal begins to change both his external anatomy and internal mindscape. He hooks up with fellow TV host Nicki Brand (the great Debbie Harry) whose own dark impulses for boundary pushing S&M only further add to his unsettling environment. The plot is a dense, surreal and difficult spiral of reality shattering techno-horror, spectacularly splattery special effects and an editing process that aims to disorient while also keeping the viewer mesmerically rapt to the screen to see how it all plays out. There’s an undercurrent of warning regarding the psychological implications of technology and pornography that feels eerily ahead of its time, a commentary on the hypnotic and dangerous application of VR (WAY ahead of its time) and all sorts of elements woven together for a totally immersive, beautifully retro-futuristic experience. It also just knows how to have a blast at the simple level of being a visually effective horror film and believe me when I tell you that these FX are for the ages and might never be topped; from torso invading genitalia chasms to glistening prosthetic weaponry crudely fashioned onto human limbs to a TV set that lives, breathes and gives birth to roiling deformities behind the screen that serves to remind us of the worrying self awareness and startling agency we project onto and bestow unto technology. One of the finest horror films I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes a film just effortlessly and uncannily combines several elements that just resonates with me and lands as an all time favourite on the first time watch. In the case of Anthony Scott Burns’s Come True it’s the gorgeous mix of SciFi/horror, analog/VHS inspired aesthetic, dream and REM sleep centred storytelling, surreal artistic visuals and the synth dripping, supersonic original score by Electric Youth that just makes this film something so special I don’t even have the words. The story concerns a runaway teenager (Julia Sarah Stone) who sleeps on playground slides (theres a metaphor in there somewhere), lives a restless nomad life and suffers from paralyzing nightmares. She agrees to participate in a sleep study for cash by a shady group that has patented technology that maps and visualizes people’s dreams onto video screens, but this only seems to exacerbate her nightmares and literally give them the power to cross over into waking life. That’s just the diving board from which we plunge into a roiling subconscious abyss of daring, unapologetically strange narrative and atmospheric substance and it soon becomes clear that director Burns, although meticulously in control of his craft and vision, wishes to let this story run completely wild and go off the edge of the map, which is a great fit considering this is a film about dreams. Some folks will undoubtably dismiss this as confusing and inaccessible but for me it pierced a frequency in my psyche that few films are able to tune into and is just the perfect soul food for my warped perception and taste in film that always hungers for the different, the weird, the boundary pushing. Actress Stone has an ethereal, pixie-like aura to her that lends itself nicely to the overall vibe. We are treated to numerous extended dream sequences which are all shot through this sort of of perpetual POV forward propulsion movement, a technique that tricks us into thinking we are ourselves moving directly into both our TV screens and the dreams themselves, then we are presented in horrific inevitable fashion with the powerful antagonistic forces on display in dreamland and it feels just about as terrifyingly tactile and immersive as being in our own dream worlds, a genius filmmaking choice really, not to mention all of the dazzlingly surreal, stark monochrome imagery and artistic flourishes along the way. Electric Youth kind of got screwed in their first original score which was for a film called ‘Breathing’ that for whatever reason was never finished or released, but their wonderful work on it can still be heard on Spotify. Here they get another shot and go absolutely synthwave ballistic for an original composition that is so beautiful your ears will bleed neon and you’ll hear it in your own dreams. It brings the story to life in ways that transcend traditional narrative at times and lures you into its world until you are transfixed right up until the ballsy twist ending that will have some people rolling their eyes and some people’s minds blown, I thought it capped the story perfectly. I don’t often use the M word but to me, and my sensibilities of what I look for in film, this is a flat out masterpiece.
Sometimes you stumble across a gem of a short film randomly, one that has big name actors, a well told story, atmosphere and great production value that just happens to be only 20 minutes or so long instead of a feature. Oceanus: Act One is something I’ve seen hovering on IMDb for awhile and I’ve always been curious, and finally a quick google search led me to a Vimeo link.. I’m glad it did. This is the story of a futuristic deep sea exploration crew with a gigantic research base near the bottom of the ocean, their purpose to study potential communication and interaction with different species of whales. When a cataclysmic seismic event disrupts the day to day mission of one scientist (Megan Dodds) alone in a small vessel, she’s thrown vastly off course and must locate her colleague and husband (Sharif Atkins) in another craft, while their commander (Bruce Davison) back down at base tries to bring them in and they are all guided by the AI computer system running their equipment, voiced coolly and evenly by the great Malcolm McDowell. Not only do they find themselves off course of the mission, but when they attempt to breach the surface to get their bearings, they discover something so alarming and terrible it raises the stakes just about as high as they can go, and they find themselves faced with only one option: return back to their base on the depths of the ocean floor with busted navigation equipment and patchy radio communications. With courage, ingenuity and a little surprise miraculous help from some aquatic friends they must journey downwards to the only home they have left. This is all edited together with beautiful CGI, vividly colourful visuals and detailed design of the ships and underwater base, a wonderfully atmospheric electronic score by Jeff Rona that echoes the best work of Cliff Martinez and a sense of urgency, suspense, immediacy and most importantly, genuine wonder, as any film about the depths of the ocean should have. This is titled ‘act one’ and I see on IMDb that a follow up film has been in development for sometime, here’s hoping it finds the money and talent to become a reality because this first act is a blessing in the marine SciFi sub-genre. Available to stream on Vimeo.
Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium is one of those films that takes one simple premise and attempts to wring just about as much mileage out of it as one feature length story possibly could and it’s… *mostly* a successful endeavour. As it opens a young lower middle class couple (Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) are house hunting for something in their price range. She’s an elementary school teacher and he’s a landscaper, relatable choices I admired from the writer, as you don’t normally see this down to earth demographic in the protagonist arena. They browse into a development office for a project called ‘Yonder’, that seems to have units affordable to them, the estate agent (Jonathan Aris) bizarrely informs them, he’s one of those eerily, painfully cheerful characters that you just want to boot in the jaw and trusting him is definitely their first, and gravest mistake. They go with him to Yonder which is basically the kind of horrifying, cookie cutter, piss green pastel suburbia that even Dr. Seuss would shudder at, and before they know it they’re stuck there, for good. It seems to be a kind of labyrinthine ‘living algorithm’ that traps them, and even when they try to drive away they consistently just end up at the house this guy was showing them, and he’s never seen again. What is this place? Can they ever get out? Who is the absolutely nightmare fuelling Little Rascal reject (Senan Jennings, dubbed over with someone else’s impossibly scary voice who isn’t listed anywhere and I’d like to keep it that way) who one day shows up and demands to be fed, cared for and raised as if he were their own kid? I’ll let you come to those answers on your own because it’s quite a fuckin ride. Imogen and Jesse give fantastic performances, stripped of their usual comedic flourishes and trademark mannerisms for two portrayals that are dark, desperate, down to earth, strikingly emotional and show none of their usual personas. The visual landscape of this artificially tranquil doldrum they are stuck in is both beautiful and threatening, orchestrated by something that knows what a human neighbourhood with cloudy skies above it *should* look like but can’t properly make it look that way because… well, you’ll see. The score by Kristian Eidnes Anderson (Von Trier’s Antichrist) is an unsettling aural piece that seems to hang languidly in the very air of this place and emanate from around every spooky deserted suburban street corner, a very effective lowkey composition. Everything works… so why didn’t I like this film as much as I should have? Well.. I can’t say because it’ll spoil the experience but I will say that this is one disquieting, unpleasant, hopelessly bleak tale in terms of thematics. There’s a scene right at the beginning of the film where Imogen teaches one of her students about a particularly nasty reality in the animal kingdom and the kid bluntly observes “I don’t like nature, it’s horrible.” To which Imogen replies, “It’s not horrible all the time.” This is very true, but this film is pretty much horrible all the time and it is essentially the forces of nature simply playing out on a much grander scale, and we have to watch two inherently decent and kind people preyed upon, broken down and used most heinously. To quote that kid: “I don’t like it, it’s horrible.” That’s not to say I disliked the entire film, I just felt like shit after. There is one moment late in the third act where all seems to be lost and Imogen cradles Jesse in her arms as they share a moment of reminiscence back to the day they met. It’s a beautiful, sweet, tender moment that is handled with maturity, gravity and staggering emotional intelligence from both actors but still served to further accent their despairing situation. It’s a good film and everyone involved should be very proud of their work, and I would never lay blame on artists for how *their* narrative and tone made *me* feel, but I’ll sure as hell be honest about it and this one felt like the world just might end.
There’s a lot of trash been talked about the Alien Vs Predator films and.. yeah, I’m not going to argue, they’re not the greatest thing in the universe, let alone the canon. But at least the second film, given the appropriate subheading Requiem, had the decency to actually be R rated and go for broke with gore, violence and ooze as we are accustomed to from each respective franchise and, as dutiful fans, no doubt deserve. While the first film was a lore-heavy, multidimensional Antarctic set SciFi horror with a ton of exposition, this one ditches all of that for a lush Canadian Pacific Northwest setting and a very thinly plotted slasher aesthetic wherein the residents of a quiet Vancouver suburb encounter both species when a predator research spacecraft carrying a bunch of alien face-huggers crash lands nearby. I won’t go too much into detail regarding the characters because they are just beyond cliched. Hot dumb blonde dating the asshole jock, underdog pizza delivery boy hopelessly in love with her, cue violent altercations blah blah who honestly cares, the writers literally put less than no effort into that arena. Tough guy town sheriff (John Ortiz) rallying the troops to fight these beasties and a mysterious army colonel (Robert Joy, adding the film’s only recognizable horror pedigree as far as cast goes) who has some egregious agenda connected to the Yutani corporation. Much of the film is shot in dim or dark settings like the first, so the action isn’t always discernible or legible, but there are a whole parade of Xenomorphs just crawling all over the place which is fun. One way this one succeeds is in its gruesome viciousness; the gore, kills, splatter and deaths here are an absolutely spectacular array of surprisingly nasty (we see kids and a pregnant mother in a hospital butchered by the marauding Aliens) set pieces and carnage, and when it comes time for the two species to have their WWE Smackdown the series of fights between them are brutal and not disappointing. The film has zero mythology and strips down all of that world building for a simple tale of one Canadian town being decimated by these two warring species as they beat each other senseless, and that’s pretty much it. I didn’t hate this film, and I didn’t love it but I sure as hell admired its willingness to go full on hard R like these franchises were always meant to be, unlike its pansy ass predecessor. And one more thing: this is the only film on record in either canon to feature an Alien/Predator crossbreed creature that seems to show up out of nowhere, and while that probably just means it was created in a lab by the Predator species who appear to be busy bees as far as experimentation goes here, I’d fondly like to think that at some point two of them fucked and had gnarly acid-lubed intergalactic alien sexy time, and I’ll leave you with whatever lovely mental image that may conjure up. Good bloody fun.
Andrew Patterson’s The Vast Of Night is one of the only films I’ve seen that almost flawlessly captures that incredibly specific feeling of ‘a summer night right around school ending’, that magical, magnetic, ‘stay up all night’ vibe right as the year gets exciting. The film itself is about two high school students in the 50’s who receive a very strange radio frequency signal at a local broadcast station one of them works at, a signal that may or may not be coming from a mysterious unseen UFO hovering above the small town’s airspace. That plot thread is really just the groundwork for what can only be described as a very atmospheric, unbelievably well written and candidly acted mood piece where, for most of the film, we simply follow these characters talking amongst themselves and interacting in a very realistic fashion until slowly, bit by bit, the underlaying SciFi narrative makes itself known. Now, naturally such a style and pace requires a modicum of nearly meditation level patience from the viewer, but when your dialogue, atmospherics, acting and physical blocking of people and objects are this fluid, assured and endearing it’s not a tough task for a viewer to fully surrender themsef to the experience. Our two young leads (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz) are both superb and have the kind of whip smart, intuitive chemistry you can relate to being a teenager once yourself, and every character they meet over the course of this night (unfolding in cohesive real time) is very well casted and acted, from their friends and family, high school faculty and a couple spooky informants who provide theories and personal experience as intel on this UFO scavenger hunt. This is director Andrew Patterson’s debut film and he goes for the boy wonder routine by basically doing almost everything himself including editing, and I have to give it to the guy, this is one hell of a first time effort. The camera moves elemental from scene to scene with unobtrusive cuts, gorgeous nocturnal summer photography and the sheer ballet of movement as characters move across town, in and out of cars, buildings and the central hub of the high school basketball stadium feels like an understated dance of near flawless blocking and storyboard translation. I won’t spoil whether or not these two kids actually find a real UFO or not because this is decidedly a ‘the journey, not the destination’ experience, but what a transfixing little journey it is. Anyone who has ever laid out in a field on a hushed summer evening, gazed up at the stars and felt that special indescribable feeling when they wonder what’s out there and are we really alone will heavily relate to this film and vibe on its atmospheric frequency, because it achieves something that is often so hard for films to tangibly and effectively alchemize onto the screen: a genuine sense of wonder. Very fine film.
I took a revisit trip to the world of Tron Legacy this weekend and it’s just… even better than I remembered it, and I was already blown away when I saw it in theatres way back when. Front and centre you have all of this ridiculously beautiful technicolor eye candy in the online world of a The Grid, stunning cyberpunk costume design, dazzling ballets of movement all set to the thundering, glorious, hellbent, super sonic galaxy of sound provided by Daft Punk’s unbelievable original score. But beneath that there’s also an incredibly clever, very poignant and intuitive script full of ideas, themes and nuance that I suppose can get lost in the sound and fury of surface level spectacle or just flew over my head (I was only 16 when this came out) at the time, but make no mistake: this film is anything but style over substance. I would almost compare this to Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 in the sense that director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) takes a beloved, dusty old analog classic from the 80’s and not only revamps it in terms of style and technical innovation but blasts open the pod bay doors of world building, thematics and expands on the lore exponentially. Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn has been stuck in the digital matrix of his own making for decades after trying to pioneer it as a new frontier, leaving his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) a troubled orphan and his Vancouver based Encom company in the hands of ruthless number crunchers with former friend and board member Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) powerless to do anything. Sam is eventually propelled into the hypnotic world of the grid to join forces with rogue program Cora (Olivia Wilde) and reunite with his father (Bridges) to fight against his tulpa Clu (a CGI Bridges) who plans to launch an attack on the real world and escape through the one remaining portal with a legion program army. There is an entire universe of visual design, colour scheme and motion on display here as Sam competes in the deadly bike races, lethal ultimate frisbee matches and darts all over the grid’s map from Clu’s thunderous gladiatorial stadium to the dark, mysterious outlands where his father hides out in a tranquil, purgatorial abode high atop a digital cliff. It goes without saying that Daft Punk’s score is some of the most spellbinding, beautiful electronic music ever laid over a film and gives it much of it’s personality. But something I missed before is the sheer imagination, poignancy in the father sun relationship and the immersive nature of this world, not just a kaleidoscopic realm of flash and dazzle, but one with rhyme, reason and genuine inspiration put into the inspired idea of ‘Isomorphic Algorithms ‘, basically anomalous, sentient programs birthed of organic energy independent of human creation, both a ghost in the machine and new race of beings sprung forth from the depths of infinite server space. This concept resonated greatly with me and apparently with Jeff Bridges too, because his line delivery, charisma and energy when describing this miraculous discovery is up there with the best work he has ever done, so too is the character progression from fledgling, prodigious programmer in the 80’s Tron to godlike, pseudo hippie, compassionate father we see here. Tron Legacy is truly a magnificent film on every level, on all fronts and one that shows true artistic inspiration and thematic resonance in striving to pioneer new frontiers and discover new life, put together in one iridescent SciFi action opus that has aged gorgeously and only gotten better with time.
I’m a huge fan of the Riddick films, I love the mythology, world building, alien anatomy and general vibe, and while the film trilogy is amazing there are also all kinds of other bits of lore to be found in other arenas including comics, animated shorts and two spectacular video games that I got a chance to view entire walk-throughs on YouTube the other night. Now, these aren’t just cheap promotional ‘tie-in’ games that are rushed into production to be released alongside the film for no other purpose than cash, they are deep, important chunks of Riddick’s story with integral character beats, wonderful stories and jaw dropping set pieces all their own. They’re also great because Vin Diesel did the voice and motion capture work for Riddick, which has to be the lynchpin role of his career and he’s supported by a galaxy of star talent and cult actors in voice roles.
The first game is called Escape From Butcher Bay and it sees Riddick and his perennial bounty Hunter nemesis/best pal Johns (Cole Hauser) arrive at the titular penitentiary, a grim institution lorded over by preening Germanic warden Hoxie (Dwight Schultz) and brutally kept in check by his corrupt head guard Abbott (rapper Xzibit). It’s here that Riddick must fight his way through hordes of feral inmates and descend deep into the bowels of the prison to find a way out and discover pieces of his mysterious identity. He participates in a gruesome fight club run by Centurion (Michael Rooker), fights alongside exiled gang kingpin Jagger Valence (Ron Perlman) and runs afoul of many other creeps voiced by awesome folks like Tony Plana, the late William Morgan Sheppard, Stephen McHattie and Joaquim De Almeida. Deep in the heart of the facility he encounters half undead deformities and meets a shadowy subterranean prophet called Pope Joe (Willis Burkes) who operates on him and first gives him his ‘sight in the darkness’ eyes. Along with these eyes come haunting visions where Furyan spirit Shirah (Kristen Lehman) speaks out to him from his ancestral past and guides his eventual path towards destiny that we see unfold in the films.
The second game is called Assault On Dark Athena and while not as mythologically rich as Butcher Bay it has the advantage of being made a few years later and so the graphics, cutscenes, fighting styles and visual aesthetics are far more polished and impressive. It picks up right where the other left off, as Riddick and Johns approach a mammoth slave ship ruled by aggressive tyrant Revas (Michelle Forbes), where he must fight and outwit his way to find intel and weaponry deep within the giant floating prison. He’s aided by former military man turned inmate Dacher (Lance Henriksen, superb) and he forges a deep bond with a little orphaned girl roaming the craft, a relationship that reminded me very much of Ripley and Newt from Aliens and provides Riddick’s arc with pathos and poignancy. I can’t speak for the actual gameplay, controls or anything on the ‘hands on’ aspects of these games as I essentially watched them as you would a movie, but in that sense they are absolutely terrific stories and more than essential to the Riddick canon and lore. Spectacularly violent, gory and hard-R like these stories were always meant to be, a beautiful fusion of poetic deep space atmosphere and kinda steampunk/mecha/convicts in space aesthetics and a wonderful pair of expansion stories on Riddick’s exciting, moving, imaginative, immersive and artistically spellbinding voyage through galaxies to find his identity, history and change the course of the universe’s future. Highly recommended, whether you want to get an old console and play them as games or hop on over to YouTube and view them as films.
You can do pretty amazing things with lower budgets if your heart, storytelling technique and ambitions are in the right place and Carl Strathie’s Dark Encounter is a glowing example of that. This is a wonderful, emotionally devastating amalgamation of classic alien abduction/UFO stylistics and deeply heartfelt interpersonal family drama that wears its influences (everything from Nolan’s Interstellar to Spielberg’s Close Encounters) lovingly on its sleeve. It tells the story of a large family sometime in the 60’s or so who get home one night to find their young daughter missing. Flash forward one year later, they are still grieving her loss and trying to deal with the lack of closure, and as they all gather at her parent’s place to try and heal, strange things begin to happen. Lights in the sky and in the forests around their property, massive flocks of birds vacating the area en-massé, and mysterious spacecrafts hovering over their abode. Was their daughter abducted by aliens, who have now returned to torment the rest of her kin? I won’t say another word about the story beyond that except to say that at this point things get *really* interesting and completely unexpected. This is a beautifully made film full of unbelievably innovative special effects when you consider the budget, everything from iridescent strobe lights emanating from the floorboards to haunting points of light dancing on the edge of the forest’s horizon to a jaw dropping immersive sequence where our POV zooms out for a breathtaking visual voyage into the far reaches of the cosmos, a journey both inwards and outwards that reminded me, in spirit, of both Kubrick’s 2001 and Malick’s The Tree Of Life. I have to warn any viewer that this is a gut punch of a story that deals in subjects matter both tragic, disturbing and is tough to watch, but the process, execution and artistic forces at work are remarkable. The film’s score might be the best I’ve heard in a long time, an expansive auditory soundscape that encapsulates everything from the eerie to the experimental to the emotionally orchestral that digs your heartstrings right out of your chest. The cast are all perfect, with Laura Fraser and Mel Raido giving soulful work as the girl’s tormented parents, and an appearance by the always awesome Vincent Reagan, this role being perhaps the first time I’ve ever seen him in cinema without a sword in his hand. This is a fantastic film for anyone who appreciates spooky, atmospheric UFO themed storytelling, very well acted family drama and an unexpected, highly affecting narrative that I promise you will not guess ahead of time. Great film.