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Category: Sci-Fi Café


Review by C.J. Bunce

For a generation of film fans, the words “Hammer Horror” are synonymous with the first color horror movies and studio stars Peter Cushing and David Prowse, who would go on to find real fame in Star Wars, and Christopher Lee, who would be the go-to guy in the 21st century for dark, imposing characters in Peter Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien movies, James Bond, the Star Wars prequels, and much more.  Before these blockbusters, these British thespians made movies for a London film company called Hammer Film Productions, and they were instantly recognized as Baron Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster, and Count Dracula.  These aren’t the famous monsters of Universal Studios fame, but thanks to Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures’ distribution, their take on these classic horror characters gained their own international fan following.  In time for Halloween, Telos Publishing has released a new information-filled guide for fans of Hammer’s horror legacy, writer Alistair Hughes’s Infogothic: An Unauthorised Graphic Guide to Hammer Horror.

As for the “graphic” in the title, it’s a bit of a play on words–think infographics, charts, diagrams, illustrations, and maps connecting the often intertwined fantasy world inside the Hammer films.  The titles to the studio’s Dracula and Frankenstein sequels provide an idea of the absurdity film goers were in for, with a list that makes the Planet of the Apes pile of sequels seem pretty short: The Brides of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Kali–Devil Bride of Dracula, Dracula AD 1972, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Dracula Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Horror of Frankenstein, The Evil of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Frankenstein Created Woman, and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.  Hammer also made monster movies set much earlier than the 19th century.  The most famous starred Raquel Welch in Ray Harryhausen’s One Million Years BC and Ursula Andress in She.  Steven Spielberg would later provide a nod to Hammer films at the end of Jurassic Park.  The words on the banner falling in the final sequence with the T-Rex was an homage to the Hammer film When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. 

One diagram in Infogothic recounts the 30 most famous actors to portray Dracula.  In others Hughes pieces together family trees based on information from the films for the Van Helsings and the Frankensteins.  A chart shows the number of adaptations of Frankenstein movies by decade (the 1970s wins with nine, and there has been 51 in all so far as we bask in the character’s 200th year).  Need to locate the story locations for each of the Hammer monster movies?  Hughes provides maps for that, too.  And Frankenstein’s monster and the Count aren’t the only monsters Hammer featured–the book includes interconnections of the several mummy movies and other creature features Hammer produced (The Gorgon, The Reptile, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, The Plague of the Zombies, The Abominable Snowman).  Hughes also includes details of lesser known and unproduced films throughout his book.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Not since the original Predator, Alien, and Aliens has Hollywood been able to match these sci-fi classics, despite attempts with eight sequels in these franchises.  But the ninth attempt–this summer’s release of The Predator–has come the closest to matching that classic blend of sci-fi, horror, future military, and action thriller.  In the new behind-the-scenes book The Predator: The Art and Making of the Film, writer James Nolan explains why director Shane Black’s return to the franchise after 30 years was the right stuff needed to bring the excitement and fun back for fans of the original genre-defining alien hunter.

The colorful hardcover includes Black’s own multi-page mission statement provided to the cast and crew, where he provides a truly unique look into the mind of a Hollywood director and storyteller.  He unveils the risks, the challenges, and his choices to resurrect the spirit of 1980s blockbuster action movies, while providing an update that is both loyal to the original movie and its ground-breaking creators like Stan Winston, while carrying forward a future vision for the film series.  Hired to serve as writer on the original 1987 film, Black chose to take on an acting role instead, and the rest was sci-fi history–until he was entrusted last year to helm this sequel.  To provide a first-hand account of production, Nolan interviewed Black, his writing partner Fred Dekker, key cast members Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, Jake Busey, Jacob Tremblay, Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key, and Augusto Aguilera, Predator actor Brian Prince, stunt performer Trevor Addie, production designer Martin Whist, director of photography Larry Fong, special effects supervisor Jonathan Rothbart, set decorator Hamish Purdy, costume designer Tish Monaghan, prop master David Dowling, producer Bill Bannerman, special effects icons Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis, and many more.

The biggest attraction in the book is the detailed photography of the interiors of the two alien spaceships and the armor and props.  Readers get to see concept artwork, computer mock-ups, designs, in-process photographs, and close-up stills.  In many films props are just set decoration that help to create the environment, but in The Predator the prop gauntlet, the helmet, and especially the “kudjad” spaceship key factor directly into the mystery.  Who could ever get enough of the aliens–the dreadlocks, those teeth, the shoulder cannon?  And then there’s the giant hunter, whose size and ship also factor into not just the finale, but the future of the films.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

When Lando Calrissian showed up on the doorstep of Han Solo and Leia with a toddler Ben in tow, Han knew the outcome couldn’t be anything good.  In Daniel José Older‘s novel Star Wars: Last Shot–A Han and Lando Novel, it’s Lando that causes angst for Han, but it also gets him away from a home life where it’s just not happening for the former smuggler and decorated General of the Rebellion.  Someone has set off some assassin droids and if your name was ever on the title for the Millennium Falcon, you’ve been marked.  The mastermind behind the droids is a character inspired by H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, a medical student plucked from his good life and plunged into a maddening existence where he begins to merge men with machines.  For Fyzen Gor, droids are the more advanced form and he will stop at nothing until the galaxy knows it.  Enter Han, Chewie, Lando, and Ugnaught, an Ewok tech guru or “slicer,” an attractive Twi-lek who Lando has his eyes on, and a young hotshot pilot, and you have a Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven story plucked from the pages of classic Marvel Comics.

But that’s the present, or at least the present time as it existed a few years after the events of Return of the Jedi, where only part of the story takes place.  Both partners Han and Chewie, and Lando and companion droid L3-37 have each encountered Fyzen Gor and his enigmatic Phylanx device before–once before Lando loses the Falcon to Han during Solo: A Star Wars Story, and once afterward.  Star Wars: Last Shot presents three parallel stories all culminating with the present search and confrontation with Gor to learn the secret of the device.  L3-37’s theme of droid rights is a significant element in this tale, and further expands L3’s influence on the future beyond being merged with the Falcon’s computer.  Despite several key cyborgs in the Star Wars galaxy (not the least of which being Luke and Darth Vader), this novel is Star Wars taking on cyborg themes not usually found in the franchise outside the early comics, themes you’d find wrestled with previously in other sci-fi properties.

The prequels live on.  Adding to the surprise presence of Darth Maul in Solo: A Star Wars Story, writer Older resurrects many bits and pieces from the Star Wars prequels, including a Gungun who makes clear that Jar Jar Binks was not emblematic of the alien race.  We also encounter many names, aliens, and places from past stories, like aliens reflecting the likes of Bossk, Hammerhead, Ewoks, Ugnaughts, and Cloud City from the original trilogy.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Philip K. Dick‘s  The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, and is widely considered his best work.  Some of his 44 novels and 121 short stories have been adapted to film, including 10 in the past year in the series Electric Dreams (previously reviewed here at borg), and big screen films Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Next, A Scanner Darkly, and Screamers.  None of those better reflect the depth of Philip K. Dick’s genius than the Amazon television series The Man in the High Castle Season 3 is available this month on Amazon Prime’s streaming service.  In his novel the series is based on Dick delved into the science fiction trope of the alternate history, a parallel world showing a view of a different 1960s after World War II.  Often mislabeled as merely a story where Nazis won the war, the fact is the novel focuses substantially on the shared Japanese victory and the resulting assimilated culture in the United States some 20 years later.  Series director Daniel Percival and a host of other directors and writers expand upon the novel–and the parallel world–into something much bigger, and something much greater.  To call The Man in the High Castle a loose adaptation of the novel is a disservice–the series conjures the spirit of Dick’s unique vision faithfully and one can imagine Dick endorsing the expanded elements were he still with us.  The novel is always the backbone of the series (even in this third season’s fifth episode “The New Colossus” viewers are brought back to a cornerstone scene from the novel).  As with Dick’s book, the series is an inspired, even noble use of science fiction.

Amazon debuted its film studio potential with the pilot for the series in January 2015, followed that November by the first season, developing not only the lead characters in the book–antique dealer Robert Childan (Brennan Brown) and Japanese Pacific States trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa)–important secondary characters are expanded, too, including struggling jewelry maker Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), his wife (girlfriend in the series) Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) who would venture off to meet the mysterious title character (Stephen Root), their friend and co-worker Ed McCarthy (D.J. Qualls), Nazi spy Joe Blake aka Joe Cinadella (Luke Kleintank), and the enigmatic Nazi attaché Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard).  Added to these eight characters by series creator Frank Spotnitz are former U.S. soldier-turned rising Nazi officer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) and his family, Inspector Kido–a cold and ruthless Japanese enforcer (Joel de la Fuente), and Nicole Dörmer (Bella Heathcote), a rising propaganda director.  The characters were fleshed out in 2016 in the show’s second season, with chemistry among the cast, plus high stakes life-and-death risks that raised doubt that viewers’ favorite characters will survive from episode to episode–all reason to keep coming back for more.  With this new season, viewers have now been able to examine the tentacles of a Fascist state as it infiltrates and annihilates both the average worker and the ruling elite–nobody really wins, everyone loses.  Historical parallels to the real world are left for the viewer’s interpretation.

Through Sewell’s Smith we see the inevitable doom awaiting everyone under a Fascist regime–that even the leaders aren’t exempt from application of their code of terror and hatred (Smith as a top official still lost his son for his “inferior” DNA via a genetic anomaly), from Frank Frink we see the struggle to survive for any member of the citizenry who is not of the “preferred” race, through Joe Cinadella (aka Joe Blake) we see how quickly a Nazi can be brainwashed into disregarding life, through Wegener we see the difficulty of defiance and resistance against a giant, stifling regime in power, through Dörmer we see the arrogance and cost of hubris, from Kido we see that torment and terror under an autocratic regime knows no bounds, Childan illustrates the complacency of a detached, disengaged middle class, through Tagomi we see the struggle of a single peacemaker among a field of lunatics, and through Juliana and Ed we see the possibility of hope through commitment and determination–but will they succeed or fail?.

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The pop culture event of 2018 is finally here!

BBC America is airing its new season, the premiere episode for Jodie Whittaker‘s 13th Doctor earlier today than normal episodes will air on Sunday evenings going forward, at 12:45 p.m. Central Time (simulcast in the UK on BBC One at 5:45 p.m. GMT).  So if you want to be among the first to see it–and avoid any spoilers online, don’t miss out.

For those who like pre-shows, BBC America is also airing a 30-minute lead-in at 12:15 p.m. Central.

Season 11 episode 1 will be re-broadcast at 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m., 9 p.m., and 11 p.m.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com

One of the more unusual offerings previewed this weekend at New York Comic Con 2018 is a collectible taking you back to the original Jurassic Park.  That’s the good movie, the memorable one that faithfully follows the story of Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel.  The one where Dr. Ian Malcolm was supposedly killed in the book, but kept alive in the movie thanks to the spark Steven Spielberg saw in Jeff Goldblum‘s performance.  Dr. Malcolm provided the powerful lesson of the movie with the punchline, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

And for whatever reason Spielberg included Goldblum in this GQ-worthy shirt-open pose.  It’s the image that would, years later, launch a thousand memes.

Now thanks to Chronicle Collectibles, you can get your own homage to this… infamous (?) scene, the first officially licensed, limited edition 1:4 scale Dr. Ian Malcolm statue.

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Big weekend news from New York Comic Con 2018 for fans of Star Trek:  A new art book takes a look at a major creator across the Star Trek series and movies, and we get a new glimpse at the some familiar characters but new faces as CBS rolls out another trailer for Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Over the past few decades, few creators have had as great an impact on the look of Star Trek than production designer, illustrator, and model maker John Eaves.  From Star Trek V through the new reboot movies, and from Star Trek: The Next Generation through the new Discovery series, Eaves has designed hundreds of props and ships.  From the look of Captain Picard’s last ship, the Enterprise NCC-1701-E, to today’s U.S.S. Discovery NCC-1031, the Federation wouldn’t look the same without his contributions.  You can pre-order here at Amazon a new, comprehensive look at Eaves’ work for Star Trek in Star Trek: The Art of John EavesTake your first look inside the pages of this new book in preview pages released this week in advance of NYCC, below.

At the Discovery panel at NYCC 2018 this weekend, the show revealed the next preview for Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.  Keep an eye out for the new Number One played by X-Men’s original film Mystique and The Librarians star Rebecca Romijn, and a glimpse at Ethan Peck as the next Spock, looking like he’s fresh out of some long-term cryo-sleep:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

For a movie that had some pretty rough previews, including Tom Hardy as a journalist with some indecipherable dialogue and a scientist who mispronounced a key word in the story, the end result may come as a surprise: Venom is actually a pretty good movie.  Do we credit a great post-production and re-shoots, including a complete redo of the strange “symbiote” explanatory scene, or does Sony need to simply work on improving its movie trailers?  Frankly all that matters is what made it to the screen.  Fans of the comic book anti-hero and villain, of alien invasion movies, of that unique character design from co-creator artist Todd McFarlane, of Tom Hardy, and non-traditional superhero movies, you’ll have to work to find anything wrong with this movie.  It’s a good Halloween month monster movie and you don’t need to know anything about the character or Marvel Comics to jump right in.  But you just might want to check out the comics after you see it.  Like Frank Miller caused Daredevil to become popular, McFarlane made Venom big in the 1980s.  Unlike McFarlane’s movie Spawn, an R-rated film that was too dark for mainstream audiences, the PG-13 rating for Venom makes this movie accessible to everyone.

A mix of the classic alien invasion flick, the horrifying McFarlane character look, with the grimy city vibe like the Detroit of Robocop, Venom has elements that make it feel like it belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, regardless of its origin as a Sony film.  As for quality and delivery, it falls somewhere above Blade, Iron Man 2 and 3, The Fantastic Four, the Hulk movies, and Spawn, X-Men 3 and X-Men: Apocalypse, and somewhere below Hellboy and Deadpool.  For most fans of adaptations of comic books on the big screen, that will be enough.  Full of good humor moments, the film doesn’t take itself seriously.  We meet the archetype from 80 years of superhero comics with Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock, an Everyman, a down-and-out guy who can never get a break who gets caught making a few mistakes.  Usually this archetype ends up captured by Batman (or insert other superhero here) and thrown into the slammer, but this time he encounters a body shifting alien presence that merges with him, blending the best and worst of both beings.  Beginning with a crash landing as a SpaceX-inspired ship returns with some specimens from outer space, we eventually meet four alien beings, the lowliest of rank who calls himself Venom.  Merged with Eddie, Venom needs to eat living lifeforms to continue on and he doesn’t grasp the subtleties of only killing bad guys just yet.  Audiences will get to watch these aliens, the symbiotes, body-shift through several random characters (like Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Fallen), including the key cast and an animal or two–and it’s mostly great fun.

Venom is probably a rare time audiences will see Michelle Williams in a stock role.  Usually every part she takes on results in an Oscar-worthy performance, but it’s nice seeing her do something less dramatic.  And she gets some great scenes directly with Venom (including an Easter Egg scene that points straight back to the origin of the character originally discussed between Marvel Comics editor Jim Salicrup and writer/co-creator David Michelinie).  This may be Tom Hardy’s best role since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (where he was the only good thing in the movie), as he at last gets to play a spectrum of emotions and demonstrate a broad acting range.  Despite what we heard in the movie trailers, his regional American accent is spot on in the final cut and his dialogue is delivered clearly–none of that crazy speech we saw him bring as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises Not hiding behind make-up or masks as in Mad Max: Fury Road, Dunkirk, or Star Trek: Nemesis, Hardy again proves he’s one of the best actors around.  The sound department gets it just right–Hardy’s voice is also the voice transformed into the monstrous, demonic sounding Venom, and it’s unique and effective.  No doubt some elaborate work went on behind the scenes for Hardy-as-Eddie to be arguing with Hardy-as-Venom.  Some of the best lines, and laugh-out-loud moments come from Venom, reminiscent of Gollum and Sméagol.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It was only a year ago, in Timothy Zahn‘s novel Star Wars: Thrawn, that Zahn returned to provide the backstory for the enigmatic military genius Grand Admiral Thrawn, who emerged from the sidelined Expanded Universe novels of the past to be part of the rebooted Star Wars canon as a driving force in last year’s season of Star Wars RebelsZahn has returned with another tale of Thrawn, this time partnering the strategist with two of the most important characters of the entire Star Wars saga (or three, from a certain point of view): Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala, and Darth Vader.  In his latest novel, the author of the most popular Star Wars novel series (the Heir to the Empire saga), brings us Star Wars: Thrawn–Alliances, one of the best character studies (in book form or on film) of Thrawn, Vader, Anakin, and Padme.

Although you’ll find the preface timeline indicates this story fits between Solo: A Star Wars Story and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (immediately following A New Dawn), a good half of Thrawn–Alliances 342 pages takes place just before the events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.  This is important because it introduces significant events for its key characters that have never been mentioned outside this book.  Most important is an early partnership between Anakin Skywalker and Thrawn at a time when Skywalker was Republic representative and Jedi and newly married to Senator Amidala, and before Thrawn joined the Imperial Navy.  As with most Star Wars stories, a recurring theme is the echo or repetition of events (dialogue, scenes, etc.) among key characters in the Star Wars universe, across the movies, novels, and comics.  So readers now learn that before the events of Star Wars Rebels, Emperor Palpatine once decided to partner Thrawn with Darth Vader to investigate a disturbance in the Force occurring on the very planet Anakin and Padme first met Thrawn years before, an outlying planet called Batuu.  The twist is that Vader’s former existence as Anakin is a carefully guarded secret in the forward story, not even disclosed to Thrawn.  The helmeted and fully armored Vader is quite knowledgeable about his past with Thrawn, and so we get to watch a sort of dance between the characters over the course of the story.

Zahn gives some powerful dialogue to Darth Vader in this story, possibly some of his best lines in the saga, and you can hear James Earl Jones’s voice in each delivery.  Because the always angry and impatient Vader is shown as the only slightly progressed and naïve Jedi, neither incarnation is a match for the wits of the shrewd and dynamic Thrawn, Zahn’s original creation first introduced in the now mostly discarded novel Heir to the Empire In many ways Zahn takes this novel as his opportunity to create a better, stronger, more manipulative villain than Darth Vader, a feat that is great for Thrawn but it also could be seen to minimize what has always been the saga’s #1 villain.  Zahn also has an opportunity to finally give Padme a rich and heroic adventure–a sadly lacking component in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy.  Yet Zahn doesn’t take full advantage of that opportunity.  She is allowed to come to the aid of some tangent factions and gets a brief survival story, but her role is secondary to the two key parallel leads and unfortunately ishe s underutilized again.

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That Miller and Lord cut of Solo you were hoping for?  You already saw it.

I was always sold on his father, Lawrence Kasdan for writing The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and writing and directing Silverado (and his superb work on non-blockbuster films like Continental Divide and Mumford), but Jonathan Kasdan (who co-wrote the screenplay to Solo: A Star Wars Story with his father) has filled in the remaining gap in what is probably the year’s best home video special features package.  That would be the extra features that accompany the home release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, available now.  The included features have key deleted scenes, most of which would have served the movie well were they included in the theatrical release (like Han’s fall from the Imperial Navy), and the least of which is plain fun that every Star Wars fan should love (like a snowball fight between Han and Chewbacca)–eight deleted scenes in all.  The home release also contains insightful featurettes that demonstrate the love for the saga and the vision, skill, and craftmanship that came together to create the film.  But it’s missing an audio commentary.  More on that in a minute.

Director Ron Howard, production designer Neil Lamont, special creature effects designer Neal Scanlan, director of photography Bradford Young, and the Kasdans, along with other members of the crew, provide fantastic insight into the influences and experience of creating the movie.  The best features include Team Chewie, with interviews and footage of Joonas Suotamo in and out of costume, and Scoundrels, Droids, Creatures and Cards: Welcome to Fort Ypso, where we see the historical art influence on the Sabacc card game scene, and Solo: The Director and Cast Roundtable, a a refreshing and eye-opening look at how Howard and the key actors came together.  Also included are short featurettes Kasdan on Kasdan, Remaking the Millennium Falcon, Escape From Corellia, The Train Heist, Becoming a Droid: L3-37, and Into the Maelstrom: The Kessel RunAcross all these, keep an eye out for Tim Nielsen, supervising sound editor and sound designer for Skywalker Sound, whose creativity is the kind of effort that caused Ben Burtt to get the Oscar for his work on the original Star Wars.  Watch these features and see why Nielsen and his team should be in the running for Oscar for his work on Solo: A Star Wars Story this year.

Director Ron Howard on the Millennium Falcon set of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Director Ron Howard, who replaced Christopher Miller and Phil Lord late in production of the film, bent over backwards to treat the departure of the two prior directors with grace and respect, which means he hasn’t discussed much detail about his work on the film.  We never thought we’d learn “who contributed what” to the film, but that is where Kasdan’s notes come into play.  Released in advance of the home video release this past week, they shed some light on what went on behind the scenes, what could easily be Kasdan’s personal, unrecorded, audio commentary notes–had Lucasfilm included one in the features.  From a certain point of view, the inclusion of so many scenes developed by the initial director duo reflect the theme of the saga: Miller and Lord–seemingly two rebels against Lucasfilm/Disney who had a vision for Star Wars and for whatever reason were sidelined–were able to have much of their vision survive in the final cut of the film.  Howard’s role seems to have been both Fixer and Closer, in addition to giving his personal touch to certain scenes, something addressed well in the features.  Kasdan’s notes (not included with the home release but reproduced below) are the ultimate backstage pass into all the creative minds behind what must have been a difficult film to make (Star Wars plus Star Wars fandom sometimes reflects the Dark Side of the movies all too well).

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