The Field (1990) ***

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I wanted to watch something Irish for St. Patrick’s Day to go along with my Guinness bread, vegan Shepherd’s Pie, and cabbage so it was finally time to watch this thing.

My initial comment on the DVD is that the transfer is of poor quality. I have only seen two other DVD/blu-rays that were this bad and those were The Whole Wide World (the Robert E. Howard biopic) and Wall Street. We are so used to seeing dust and scratch free images now that it’s unusual to see a dirty transfer. But I will say it wasn’t as bad as those other two films and it didn’t impact the experience too badly. The sound was fine.

The story is about a psychopathic old tenant farmer played by Richard Harris and his mentally handicapped son played by a young Sean Bean. They live in squalor and are obsessed with a three acre piece of land that they have worked for a generation even though they do not own it. But the Harris character ‘Bull’ McCabe thinks he owns it because he’s worked it so long. Welcome to capitalism Mr. McCabe!

He says there is a difference between “The Law” which says the owner can sell it anytime she wants to and “The Law of the Land” which he says entitles him to the field because he dug so many rocks out of it over the years. So he already is clearly not on board the reality train. But the people of this rocky, barely habitable Irish fjord are nice people and when the field goes up for auction they will allow the crazy old man to be the single unopposed bidder. Until… in a direct contrast to the worn out downtrodden Irish in comes a smooth as silk Yank, played by Tom Berenger, who offers more than the old man could ever afford.

I don’t know if this was the filmmaker’s intent but I immediately sided with the Berenger character. Not only is he a smooth dresser who drives a cool car, but his family came from that town and he wants to build a dam on the land, a project that would create badly needed jobs and cheap electricity. Set in the ‘30s this town is still such a backwater that there are no electric lights in most of the homes. But Bull can’t have this, he must have HIS land so he murders Berenger in cold blood with his son’s help. Catholic guilt is a real thing and after getting scolded by the town priest, McCabe goes “super crazy” and then the real killing in earnest begins.

The photography, locations, music, and acting are all excellent. Harris especially carries the movie. However I kept wanting to see more of the civilized American. Berenger had to be one of the most handsome men in Hollywood at that time. He just stands out so sharply against the dirt poor and crazy Irish. John Hurt is even lower class than McCabe as a toothless barely understandable stooge. Everyone but the American and the priest is dirty, drunken, and poor. So very, very poor. So it’s not exactly a “fun” movie. Many animals are killed throughout and that was a turn off for my wife. I don’t know how they accomplished the animals dying, whether they used corpses or dummies, but hopefully they didn’t actually kill them just for the movie.

So it’s probably not the best St. Patty’s Day movie to watch but the acting is so good that I have to at least give it…

3 shamrocks outta 5

Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi *

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John Williams is probably the only reason I don’t give it zero stars. It’s sad that his name has to be associated with this disaster. Same for Mark Hamill. He’s making millions off this trilogy so I can’t say I blame him for doing it, but if it weren’t for the money I’m sure he would have told Disney to take a hike after he read the script.

Luke here is a coward, traitor, and curmudgeon. Hmm, I seem to ‘member him being selfless, brave, and optimistic. He burns down a Jedi Temple and all of it’s sacred texts. He says “The Jedi must be destroyed.” WTF??

J.J. Abram’s made us care about Rey’s (the new female Luke) mysterious origins in the last movie. He made it seem like her parents were somebody. Same with the Sith Lord Snoke. We never find out who he is either. Last Order? No idea who they are or how they came to be. Clearly Disney wrote no backstory.

And yes, Leia flies through the vacuum of space without a space suit. The problem with that is 1) even Lord Vader (the most powerful Jedi of all time) couldn’t do that and 2) we’ve never seen Leia use The Force except to communicate with Luke. But now she can’t even do that, but she can survive in the vacuum of space and fly like Supergirl. And that’s a huge problem with this movie. The Force is way too strong. Luke uses it to “enter the Matrix” for chrissakes. Vader never did that. The Emperor never did that. Kylo (the new boyishly lame Vader) and Rey use it to talk across light years of space like it’s a walkie talkie. And apparently it doesn’t even take years of training to master it any more. Luke teaches Rey nothing, she just becomes a Jedi on her own.

Not only is this the worst Star Wars movie by far, it’s one of the worst blockbusters ever made. Nothing makes sense. If the chrome stormtrooper Phasma has armor that can repel blaster fire then why wouldn’t every stormtrooper have that armor? Why did Luke make a map to himself if he just wanted to be left alone to die? It’s an epic fail of storytelling besides destroying the legacy of the original movies. Everything the Rebellion fought for is completely meaningless now. Vader’s sacrifice? Pointless. It stole many of the plot points from the old movies again. It’s just a train wreck. I would compare it to The Matrix 3 or Highlander 2 for it’s incompetent mishandling of a series.

1 fan film outta 5

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me ***

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This documentary film by Drew DeNicola tells the story of a little known but influential rock band from the ’70s. If you are a fan of The Jesus and Mary Chain, REM, or The Replacements then you’ve probably heard of these guys or at least would recognize the influence. The primary force in the band was Alex Chilton, singer of the ’60s hit “The Letter.” He wrote most of the songs with lead guitar player Chris Bell. Responsible for the engineering of the pretentiously titled “#1 Album” Bell dropped out of the band after the record failed to go #1 or even close. After destroying the master tapes the rest of his life was a downward slide of drugs, depression, and religion. He died in 1978 in a car crash.

Chilton likewise was a madman and abandoned the project that he would be best known for. Big Star only made three albums with the third one not even getting published until years after it was recorded. The documentary goes to great lengths show how bad marketing and an ahead of it’s time sound kept the music from gaining popularity. Well that’s life isn’t it? No one is owed anything no matter how talented. Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting while he was alive.

This doc is very well done and engaging but because the lifespan of Big Star was so short it lacks gravitas. Chilton would go on experiment with the punk sound and became a producer for The Cramps and other lesser known bands. Even though he said he hated Big Star he saw where the money was finally and reformed them in ’90s to capitalize on the Nirvana trend. He died in 2010. It’s not a great film, but it is very good and recommended for fans of indie/alternative music.

3 Big Stars Outta 5

Triplanetary by E.E. Smith ***

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Alongside Asimov’s Foundation, Burrough’s Barsoom, Herbert’s Dune, and Heinlein’s Future History, E.E. Smith’s Lensman series is a seminal universe in science fiction. The first book in the series is called Triplanetary and establishes a united “federation” of planets allying Earth, Venus, and Mars. The beginning of the novel starts with an attack on Triplanetary by a “death star,” an artificial moon that is all but unstoppable. It uses “tractor beams” and “shields” to disable the Triplanetary ships and withstand their attacks. If it came out now it would seem to borrow heavily from the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars, but it was in fact the other way around. This was the first novel to coin the term “tractor beam” and first to invent invisible shields around space ships (called “screens”). It was also the first to use phaser beams (called “projectors” by Smith).

No one loves Doc Smith’s work for it’s incredibly insightful three-dimensional characters or for it’s witty dialogue. No, this is a war story pure and simple and is about shit gettin’ blow’d up. It’s great pulp action and was way ahead of it’s time. Smith had a keen understanding of science and technology and he packed this adventure yarn to the gills with it. It also features enough twists and turns to keep it interesting.

As the “death star” is about to completely obliterate the entire Triplanetary fleet… swooping in out of light speed comes an alien race to attack Earth. So a human civil war immediately turns, mid battle, into a fight for species survival. The aliens are interesting and original and their method of killing is… unusual. They suck all of the iron from the body, leaving behind a bloodless white shell.

Many critics lament that Smith was merely a pulp writer who never elevated his work to that artistic level of his most famous pupil, Robert Heinlein, but he did actually have a flair for description:

“Above her, ruddy Mars and silvery Jupiter blazed in splendor ineffable against a background of utterly indescribable blackness–a background thickly besprinkled with dimensionless points of dazzling brilliance which were the stars.”

Heinlein named many of his characters “Smith” in honor of his biggest influence, including Valentine Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land. In addition to it’s influence on all of the epic science fiction that followed, including Star Trek and Star Wars, the novel also directly inspired Steve Russell to create the original video game Spacewar! in 1962. Even though sf has grown up out of space opera and pulpy adventure, this novel is still a fun read and would definitely make good young adult reading.

I read and reviewed the original version of the story as it appeared in Amazing Stories in 1934. Smith did go back and add a few chapters to better tie it in to his later novels in 1948. I heard that the original edit was better. This book is in the public domain and can be found online.

3 projector beams outta 5

Tales of the Jedi *****

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Tales of the Jedi is a Dark Horse comic series consisting of seven graphic novels. I had time to read them all after I was laid up after foot surgery. This series, which began in 1993 and ran until 1998, was one of the first stories to be told in the Expanded Universe after the Star Wars franchise had pretty much died out. There was of course the Marvel comic book series which told stories about Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo until 1986 when it was canceled. After the cancellation of Lucas’ Ewoks and Droids cartoon series, the property laid dormant for almost ten years. The resurgence of interest began in 1991 with the publishing of Heir to the Empire by Timothey Zahn, the first of the post Return of the Jedi novels. Back then Lucas still had input in these materials. Tales of the Jedi is based upon notes given to the writers by Lucas himself. The first two graphic novels are about the origin of the Sith race and how they came to be controlled by a Dark Jedi. Now the word Sith goes hand in hand with the term Dark Jedi, but the Sith were originally a red-skinned humanoid race that formed the basis of a Dark Side empire on the other side of the galaxy from the Old Republic.

The tale begins 5,000 years before A New Hope. In this time the galaxy is not yet fully explored. Hyperspace jumps are extremely dangerous because navigation computers have not been invented yet. So only the bravest or most desperate explorers take random jumps hoping to find a new trade route and gain wealth and fame. A brother and sister team accidentally discover a Sith homeworld and inadvertently lead them back to the Old Republic. And so begins the first Sith War.

This story was excellent, although short, and gives a good backstory to the whole Dark Side/Light Side of The Force. Lightsabers have cords connected to power packs that were worn on the back or belt. It’s a nice touch, showing that we are in the old days of the Republic. After this introductory story, the narrative then leaps forward a thousand years.

The later five graphic novels all tell a connected self-contained story with the same characters. This is where it gets good. The main characters are two young Jedi brothers, Ulic Qel-Droma and Cay Qel-Droma, and a female Jedi, Nomi Sunrider. Their masters are good characters as well but it is the students who have the greatest character arcs. I especially liked Nomi Sunrider, someone who never wanted to be a Jedi Knight. I love this cover by Dave Dorman of the moment Nomi first picks up a lightsaber and realizes that she is a Force sensitive. It has such a mythic-religious aura about it. I even like how Dorman painted the rim lighting on her hair to resemble a halo.

Her husband is a Jedi Knight who is surprised and murdered by a band of thieves. To protect her child she picks up his lightsaber and cuts them all down with remarkable ease. The Force guides her to her husband’s master and she begins her training. But throughout the story she is a true pacifist and refuses to pick up a lightsaber again. She is not merely Luke with boobs (as Rey is) but a feminine mother protector. She eventually falls in love with the doomed Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma.

The story centers on a resurgence of Sith power on a backwater planet. Ancient Sith texts and artifacts from the previous story are discovered and once the dark techniques are mastered, the new Sith begin to easily start taking over again. One of the brothers in the story, Ulic Qel-Droma thinks that he can learn to control the Dark Side, but as always, he succumbs to it and joins the enemy. So you end up with brother vs. brother and lover vs. lover. It’s pure Greek tragedy.

Tales of the Jedi was co-written by Tom Veitch and science fiction writer (co-author of the Dune Universe) Kevin J. Anderson. The art in the series is not the best, but it is also not the worst. This series came out during the comic book boom of the ‘90s when artists were being paid more than any other time in history. Star Wars was not a best-selling property then so they had to make do with what they had. One interesting thing the editors did was have one artist draw the characters and another draw all the tech like ships and weapons.

What really makes this series great is that it was adapted into a series of audio dramas sold on cassette and CD. These were full productions with professional actors, sound effects, and music. I am kind of surprised at how well these radio plays brought this story to life and elevated the characters in my mind. The writers of the dramas expanded and clarified the story from the comic series making it into a movie of the mind’s eye. The only bad thing about it is that they weren’t able to finish it. The audio drama stops mid-way through the saga. Probably because the series kept going until 1998 and by then audio dramas weren’t selling well.

Now that Star Wars is done as a film property, I have turned to the books and comics that I missed or could not afford in the ‘90s. The stories were based upon George Lucas’ notes and are much truer to the original saga. Tales of the Jedi could easily be adapted into a film trilogy. The audio drama is essentially a film without the pictures.

5 Dark Siders Outta 5

You can listen to it on YouTube. The entire story was also released in a series of two large omnibus editions from Dark Horse. The video game The Knights of the Old Republic was inspired by this series. It takes place 40 years after these events.

Star Trek Beyond **

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Star Trek: Generations looks like Citizen Kane next to Star Trek Beyond. At least I felt some emotions during the former. Beyond is an exciting non-stop thrill ride, but nothing else. There was zero character development or arch, even for the villain. Spock gets to do absolutely nothing of significance. It really is Fast and Furious with space ships. It is not even a science fiction film, but an action adventure. There were no Romulans, no Klingons, or any of the famous Star Trek civilizations. The Enterprise crew is defending a space station and that’s the whole movie. Simon Pegg lied through his crooked teeth when he said this would appeal to Star Trek fans. Star Trek usually involves science and exploration. Neither were present in this movie. But if shoot outs, death defying stunts, and racing are your things, you will love it. The action is top notch as ILM threw everything they had on screen. The movie is so beautiful, it’s really a shame that they couldn’t find a story to tell. They could have grabbed any old Star Trek comic book or novel and just made that. But instead the plot merely leads us from one action set piece to the next. It is by far the weakest of the three reboots yet not as bad as Star Trek: Insurrection.

2 Nanobots Outta 5

Pegg also made a cringe worthy intro to the movie begging people to stop watching Netflix and go to obsolete theaters instead. They’re getting desperate. Make good movies and they will come. But this empty vfx-fest will play just fine on a 60″ home theater screen.

Hell or High Water ***

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Hell or High Water is a modern cops and robbers drama set in west Texas. Jeff Bridges continues his streak playing tough grizzled lawmen. Chris Pine delivers another great but understated performance as Bridges foil. I could watch these two read soup cans back and forth to each other all day. But sadly they only interact once in the entire film, but boy it’s some damn good acting. Ben Foster, who was probably cast because of his role as Billy Badass in 3:10 to Yuma, essentially plays the same role in this film. He and Pine are brothers and bank robbing partners. I don’t really buy Foster in this role. He’s supposed to be a tough guy but he doesn’t look so tough. He’s got a nerdy kid kind of face, which was covered up by a beard in 3:10 to Yuma and that helped immensely. He is probably most famous for playing Angel in X-Men 3. His character, unlike Pine’s, is also fairly one-dimentional. He also looks a little bit like Sean Penn which is maybe why I don’t like his face.  Tongue He also happened to be engaged to Penn’s ex, Robin Wright.

But this is really Bridge’s movie. He’s given more screen time than Pine and is on the side of lawful good. Pine is supposed to be the robber with the heart of gold, but it’s a highly unsympathetic role. The plot is dead simple Western formula: the two brothers’ family ranch is about to get taken over by the evil banks and they have only a matter of days to get the money to pay off the mortgage and liens. Even so, robbing banks is still a stupid and dangerous way to help your family out. You can see a bit of Heat in this film, where they want you to feel sympathetic for the cops and robbers, but not enough time is spent with Pine to really get to know him.

There are enough twists in this otherwise formulaic crime movie to keep it interesting. It’s also always nice to watch a film shot somewhere other than Los Angeles.

3 Foreclosures Outta 5

Baby Driver ***

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Heralded by critics as one of the best films of the year, Baby Driver deftly moves it’s crime/thriller/comedy story along at a fast clip yet it lives in a world of quirky unreality. Much like Edgar Wright’s other films Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, the laws of logic and physics take a second seat to the action. People don’t die after getting shot. Bullets don’t impact main cast members even though they are clearly standing in the way of them. Crimes of murder and felony bank robbery are punished with light sentences. Rather than sweating bullets during a robbery that would guarantee 30 to life, Baby sings along to his mp3s with a smile.

So once you realize that this story doesn’t take place on Earth, but rather in a manchild’s imagination, you can at least enjoy the ride. Car stunts are great as is the cast which includes Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Jamie Foxx who blows everyone else off screen.

Like Guardians of the Galaxy the film utilized a plethora of ‘70s R&B hits. I don’t know, I just don’t think a 20 year old kid would be into that stuff. They try to explain why (his Mom was an R&B singer) but I still find it unlikely. It’s just a movie trope right now, ripped off from Tarantino movies of the ’90s.

It’s worth watching but this story could never happen.

3 stars outta 5

Wonder Woman ***

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I would put it alongside Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern as a mid tier superhero movie that was likewise clearly rushed and relied on CGI and green screen for the third act. Also like Green Lantern we are not really privy to what the limits of WW’s powers are. At the end she seemingly can generate energy balls like a Dragonball Z super saiyan even though this is never shown in the comic books.

The movie starts strong with some backstory about the Amazons, but it seems unlikely that they would have no idea about World War I if they are supposedly sworn to protect the innocent people of the world. It’s just one of many plot holes. Another one is the fact that Diana chose to intervene in the end of WWI yet did nothing of note during WWII (when she would have been even more badly needed)… or any other conflict on record for that matter. What has she been doing for the last 100 years?

The villains are never fleshed out or given much of a backstory – except for the god Ares – who, as a god, is not relatable. The music was better than Green Lantern yet it only had one or two themes. The CG was Snyder-rific with lots of fast to slow money shots. But much like BvS and Green Lantern there was just way too much of it. Wonder Woman just shows that a DC movie doesn’t have to be good to be a hit, it just has to be watchable. BvS and Suicide Squad could not even achieve that level of mediocrity.

3 stars outta 5

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets ***

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Inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar Luc Besson gambled all of the good will he harnessed by producing Taken and Lucy into the most expensive indie movie of all time. And it shows.

This is animation and vfx so good it had to be Weta, and they ain’t cheap. Not only that but ILM also did a huge chunk of the movie. It is THE vfx movie of the year, no doubt. Digital characters (hundreds of them) look so real that you almost think they are. Only problem is… he forgot to write a compelling story.

The film moves from one eye candy set piece to another with really interesting, never-before-seen action, but sadly all this viewer cared about were the visuals themselves. The two stars are much too young to be believable as space cops. They are given no backstories and are just our human connection on a space station full of CG aliens. Rihanna is in the movie… why? To have a million dollar Weta-enhanced dance number of course! Ethan Hawke is also in this scene for some reason.

It’s a strange movie to review because I do recommend seeing it, just to watch a madman burn hundreds of millions of dollars on fx work. There are some very interesting concepts and futuristic weapons and vehicles that are also worth the time. The design alone should win some kind of award, but in the end it’s a missed opportunity as Besson went for splash and not story.

If you have any bags of drugs lying around, after popping in this blu-ray with the surround sound turned up, I would suggest taking them.

3 astroships outta 5