Lifeforce (1985)

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If you remember “Lifeforce” from your youth, chances are an image is already in your head, and that image is of Mathilda May. For no doubt vital plot reasons, she plays virtually her entire part naked…trying to describe her in some way that doesn’t make me sound like a sleazy douchebag is proving difficult, so I’ll leave it there. Anyway, this movie co-stars a nude lady, is produced by shlock superstars Cannon and is based on a book called “Space Vampires”. Are you with me so far? Then read on!

Britain has astronauts and its own space shuttle, and a distinctly low-rent Mission Control (so, quite authentic-looking). Along with one American astronaut (because movies needed American leading men then, even ones as dull-looking as Steve Railsback), they go to Halley’s Comet and discover a huge alien spaceship, full of long-dead hideous creatures…and three naked people in glass boxes. Then the ship seems to disappear until 30 days later when a rescue ship finds it, full of lots of dead bodies and the three people, still in the glass cases, and takes them all down to Earth.

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Because men are idiots, and because she’s got space-vampire mind control powers, Mathilda May is soon out of her case and off causing havoc, spreading space-vampirism wherever she goes and eventually leaping from body to body (Mathilda May is in perhaps a third of the movie). With the help of SAS Colonel Caine (Peter Firth), Carlsen (Railsback) – who made it to earth in an escape capsule – goes after her, which leads to an asylum on the North Yorkshire moors and then back to London for a hell of a denouement.

My friend Dave made a great point that a remake of this would totally work as a mini-series, with every episode being a different genre – part 1 as space adventure, part 2 as a chase thriller, part 3 as Apocalypse London. “Lifeforce” has an absolute ton of stuff packed into its almost 2 hours, and feels like three films in one, just with all the boring bits cut out. There’s a pretty interesting relationship at the centre of it between Carlsen and Space Girl too, and how she affects even the people she doesn’t drain and turn into zombie-vampire-things.

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It’s crammed with great British character actors, probably something to do with Cannon wanting solid hands but not wanting to pay too much for them (it’s filmed in the UK, why not hire Brits to play all the parts?). In main roles, as well as Peter Firth, who’s gone on to be a regular in many great TV shows, there’s Frank Finlay as the doctor who figures out they’re space vampires, and Patrick Stewart as the doctor in charge of the Yorkshire asylum. Although I’ve assumed Stewart just emerged from the ether to be in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, he was a hard-working actor (member of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1966) for many years before. He’s great in his small role.

Considering the many behind-the-scenes roadblocks, it’s a surprise “Lifeforce” came out as fun as it did. The script credited (partly to Dan O’Bannon, genre superstar) was probably not the final script used, and there were as many as 8 writers who worked on various versions of it. There were huge numbers of casting changes, including John Gielgud dropping out of the part which eventually went to Patrick Stewart; and seemingly every actor in England signing on to play the Firth role at one time or another (Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine and Terence Stamp being the most famous).

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But it really is rather good. Because of the quality of the actors involved, it feels a lot better developed than it perhaps was; the special effects are pretty good too, and although the alien plan seems somewhat convoluted (perhaps due to editing) it’s interesting, and their alien-ness is well gotten across. I’m honestly surprised, expecting from my childhood viewings a bit of fun trash with the stunningly beautiful Mathilda May to hold my interest when it started drifting…but it never did. Three for the price of one, plenty of luvvies slumming it in a Hollywood-financed space vampire movie, and definitely worth revisiting.

Rating: thumbs up

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Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage (2014)

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Throughout this film, I was wondering “the guy they got to play Sinbad seems a little small, bald and unimposing to be playing one of literature’s greatest heroes” until the end credits rolled and I realised that Sinbad was also the film’s writer, producer and director, Shahin Sean Solimon. Hey, he went and got funding and made a film of his pet project, and all I did was buy a pad of paper so I could criticise him. He wins.

As a kid, Ray Harryhausen’s “Sinbad” movies were my favourites – I always preferred them to Star Wars, which is the thing most other kids my age loved (although I liked Star Wars just fine). “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”, “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” and “Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger” are full of larger than life characters, great adventure, revolutionary special effects and still look amazing today. So, to make a film in 2014 which claims to stand in Harryhausen’s tradition, you’d better come correct. Action! Heroism! Cool looking monsters! A bit of Arabian flavour! These are the things we Sinbad fans crave.

Unfortunately, what this film gave us was a quiet, unassuming lead, a bunch of completely interchangeable cannon-fodder crew, a story which was just a bunch of scenes vaguely strung together (and most of which you’ll remember from earlier, better films) and, strangest of all, special effects which manage to look cheaper and worse than those done over 50 years ago! The story also manages to be confusing right from the off by having a scene, then a “Many Years Later”, then one scene later “24 hours earlier”, and has flashbacks running through the film which aren’t in chronological order either.

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The plot is, Sinbad is trying to rescue his betrothed, who’s been kidnapped by an evil wizard. He and his crew try and track him down, all the crew die without putting up a fight, then Sinbad kind-of tricks a genie to teleport him the rest of the way to her. But the genie just sort of gets him close, for no reason other than they’ve got five more minutes they need to fill. By the way, the “Sinbad and the genie discuss the rules of wishing” is perhaps the dullest few minutes in recent film history. But I digress.

Patrick Stewart is top billed, in his role as narrator. His voice is great, naturally, but his narration is maybe 5-10 minutes of screen time, and he probably did it in the taxi on his way from one job to another. Also, he’s narrating things as future Sinbad, so it’s sort of odd to know that when he gets old, Sinbad’s accent will change from slightly middle-Eastern into a posh old English fella.

The moment a skeleton came out to fight Sinbad, I booed at the screen. The skeleton fight from Harryhausen’s “Jason And The Argonauts” is in my top 10 scenes of all time, a classic piece of moviemaking that still excites over half a century later. Don’t believe me? Thanks, Youtube!

“Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage” has two skeletons, one of which lasts about five seconds. If that’s all you can do, just give up. Use a different scene. Do not remind us of one of the greatest scenes of all time in your bad movie.

So there’s an underwhelming hero, a terrible baddie who can’t act worth a damn, rotten special effects, a confusing plot, and narration which is so out of place it makes the movie seem worse. And it barely qualifies as a movie! 79 minutes listed, but 10 minutes of that is credits, and there’s a not-short opening credits scene as well.

I’m not so much annoyed that it’s bad, although it’s really bad, I’m more annoyed it exists at all. If you’re going to do a Sinbad movie, go big or go home. Or, don’t try and copy a master and just do your own thing with one of the other stories. Looking at it on IMDB, where it currently sits at 6.5 / 10 with 4300 voters, makes me think someone got a heck of a lot of their friends to vote 10. Heck, this is even worse than Asylum’s Sinbad movie!

Rating: thumbs down

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X Men – Days Of Future Past (2014)

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Among we fans of comics, the “Days of Future Past” storyline is regarded as one of the best story arcs of all time. The X Men of the future (along with all mutants, really) are being driven to extinction by the Sentinel robots of Bolivar Trask, who are equipped with the ability to adapt to any mutant attack. To try and prevent these horrific events from happening, the X Men send one of their own into the past and they try to rally the troops there, to prevent the Sentinels from ever being used, and to stop the kidnap of the mutant whose DNA gives Trask the information he needs to make the robots indestructible.

Due to the relative stature of the stars they got for the individual roles, there’s been a few tweaks to the original story, not that it really matters. Huge Jacked Man and Jennifer Lawrence, as Wolverine and Mystique, are probably the two biggest names here, while Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde (the central figure of the comics) is more a plot device than a character. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The enormous benefit from this storyline, from the filmmakers’ perspective, is you can have two separate sets of actors, thus doubling the star power. Professor X and Magneto are played in the future by real-life best friends Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and in the past by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy – the chemistry between these two sets of actors (and with Lawrence and Jackman being particularly fun interviewees) has made the publicity tour something actually worth not avoiding, for once.

Anyway, Wolverine has to go back in time to inhabit his own younger body (given the gulf of time between the future and past in this film, he’s the only person who’d both be alive in 1973 and physically able to cope with the journey), then convince the scattered remnants of the X-Men to stop the crucial event, the thing that causes the world the film starts in to be so bleak, which turns out to be Mystique killing Trask. So we get action as they try to bust Magneto out of the prison underneath the Pentagon; meeting with young versions of many notorious characters, and also tracking the activities of Bolivar Trask as he tries to get his robots made. Peter Dinklage as Trask is brilliant with what he’s given (which isn’t a lot), but that should probably go without saying at this point. The cast in the future try to protect Wolverine’s time-travelling body while waiting for the inevitable Sentinel attack; and the cast in the past try and find Mystique and change her mind.

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After being thoroughly bored by the last two X-Men related films I saw (“X-3” and the first “Wolverine”) this is a decent return to form for them, and its ending promises interesting times ahead for these films. If they keep producing them, that is, which given the hefty price tags attached to their cast list would have to be a fairly substantial undertaking. Although the 1973-era storyline is clearly the main one, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the future one too, with McKellen and Stewart as the two standouts, but plenty of easter eggs for us comic fans, as well as a strong cast to base future films around (including Shawn Ashmore as Iceman and Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde).

What’s a bit less thrilling is the conclusion. Without spoiling it too much…well, I don’t think I can. All I will say is, for her tiny tiny role in the film, Anna Paquin is really highly billed in the credits. Turns out there’s a substantial plotline with her that’s been completely cut, and if she’d been in it I think it would have improved both the balance between the two timelines and made things make a bit more sense. I think the problem is, when the stakes get high enough, there’s no possible way it can end badly, which ruins the tension (and all the stuff that’s happening in the future) and it being a superhero film even if someone dies you know they’ll be back for the next one…but that’s not a particular flaw with this one, more a flaw with all of them.

I feel I’m letting my film-reviewer brain say too much to my film-fan brain, because this film was enjoyable and fun and had lots of great set-pieces and performances. I just feel a few tweaks to the editing of the last section of the film would have paid dividends, and can’t shake the feeling there was something a little broken deep in the mechanics of the movie. But you’ll definitely still enjoy it.

Rating: thumbs up