Thursday, December 25, 2014

Retro Reviews: The Alien Quadrilogy

Having recently rewatched the uneven though worthy prequel Prometheus, I found myself wanting to go back and watch the movies that started it all. Here are my reviews of the series:

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

What does one say about Alien? It's all but flawless, really.

I'm not going to bother avoiding spoilers because, hey, it's been 35 years. Alien is the absolute gold standard of science fiction/horror. Other movies in this blended genre might be scarier, and some others might be smarter, but no others get the balance of all elements working in perfect harmony like the original.

The story of Ellen Ripley and her doomed crew is a marvel. The first act of the movie may seem slow. It does, in fact, have an almost 2001: A Space Odyssey pacing, during which we viewers are meant to drink in the scenes and effects. And they completely hold up, even these three-and-a-half decades later. The languid pace of life for the crew of the Nostromo, beginning with their premature emergence from their cryo-sleep pods, gives ample time for us to acclimate to the eerie quiet of deep space. This ensures that when things start to go suddenly and horribly wrong, the impact is magnified immensely.

True to the very best horror movies, Ridley Scott applied the slow reveal approach for much of the film. Yes, there are moments of punctuation. The face-hugger. The chest-puncher. The revelation that Ash is an android. These moments (especially the chest-puncher) have become iconic scenes. The reason is that they are blended so exceptionally well with the gradual crescendo of uncertainty and terror.

More than any other film in the series, the supporting
characters are so well-rounded that each loss has impact.
For me, one of the underrated aspects of the movie is just how natural the crew is. Thanks to understated scripting and phenomenal acting, each and every crew member feels like a real person (except Ash, for obvious reasons). Getting actors like Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, and Ian Holm clearly paid off, as they all make us feel sympathy for their plight as humans. They are funny, caring, hard-working people who did nothing to deserve the fate in store for them.

The ultimate master stroke of the film may just have been having a strong female character as the survivor. Even before the xenomorph is brought onto the Nostromo, Ripley perseveres through the entire ordeal, some of which involves making very tough calls about who should live or die (it can be easy to forget that, had the rest of the crew followed her stern orders, disaster would have been completely averted). She clearly shows herself to be tough, capable, and willing to grit her teeth and fight like hell.

I can't see how this movie will ever get old. Other films have tried to recreate the formula, and many more will continue to do so. But I can't see how any will ever succeed in topping it.

As the poster suggests, the immediate
sequel forewent suspense for action.
It worked brilliantly.
Aliens (1986)

Director: James Cameron

Oh, James Cameron. What happened to you?

That might be a tad harsh, but I couldn't help think this as I watched Aliens, which, along with The Terminator, make for two of the greatest science-fiction action movies of all time. Exactly how the man responsible for these two incredible movies could also give us the gag-worthy Titanic and the rather obvious and relatively ham-fisted Avatar is beyond me.

Whatever the reason, Aliens is above reproach.

I don't know that there is another sequel in film history that maintains the first film's continuity so well, while being so very different in tone and arguably just as excellent. This is no mean feat when you have to stack up to Alien.

In what may be one of the gutsiest and most ingenious sequel maneuvers ever, James Cameron decided to take a masterpiece of slowly-built tension and horror and pull it right into the thick of muscled-up, high-octane 1980s action blockbuster territory. Instead of slow, steady panning shots that convey the solitude and isolation of space, Aliens gives us kinetic, wild action and a steady diet of classic tough guy one-liners. And oh yeah, a woman is still the toughest character in the room - a room that's filled with marines.

The space marines are brilliant, thanks greatly to some excellent dialogue and a phenomenal cast, including stand-out James Cameron regulars Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton. Having a small platoon of deadly soldiers (a co-ed platoon, by the way) now charging into a colony set up on the same planet where Ripley's crew discovered the horrific alien is a great set up. Once the creatures start to emerge and attack, en masse, you get action movie gold. The shoot-outs are fun enough, but the dialogue enhances the entertainment factor beyond words. Thanks to some decent scripting, excellent ad libbing by the likes of Bill Paxton and others, and phenomenal acting, the interplay between the marines and Ripley between the intense action scenes is what sets the film apart. And not just from its formidable predecessor, but also nearly every other action film.

The deeper story of Ripley also adds great depth to the Alien storyline. Ellen Ripley is one of the greatest action characters in movie history. And I personally think she is the greatest female action character in history, in every way. Not unlike John McClain in the Die Hard series, she is not some unrealistically superhuman machine of death and destruction. She is a seemingly normal, blue collar person who finds herself in horrible circumstances. These circumstances bring out the exceptionally heroic qualities that lie within her. As with Alien, the sequel doesn't overly emphasize Ripley's gender. Aside from a very brief, possibly flirtatious glance between her and Hicks, sexual tension is blessedly left out of the movie. This is a pitfall that painfully few action films avoid.

Although the end of the movie might drag just the tiniest bit, with Ripley's return to the lower reaches, followed by a second showdown with the queen xenomorph, the action remains solid. By the end, the sense of relief and closure is more than satisfying.

Say what you will about James Cameron and his films in the past 20 years. Aliens is a masterpiece, and it will continue to remain so for many, many more decades to come.

If you think that "3 Times..." tagline
is cheesy, then you have some idea
of what you're in for. 
Alien3 (1992)

Note: I watched the extended, special edition "Assembly Cut" of the movie, which features several marked differences from the theatrical release. "Director" David Fincher had no input into this revised version of the film, so one can debate which one is the "true" version.

Director: David Fincher

Oh, how the mighty fell. Sadly, the potential far outstripped the end result in this third film of the series. Director David Fincher long ago disassociated himself from this movie, and it's not hard to see why.

Alien3 is, while not a complete mess, a very messy movie. In reading up on its production, I came to learn that this was due to poor planning by the producers and a lot of studio interference. The result was a film which Fincher was not even willing to call his own, and it's not difficult to see why.

The basic story idea is not a bad one. Ripley ends up on a penal colony planet, where an all-male crew of two dozen lethal felons are serving out their sentences as steel workers. The setting is not unlike that of Aliens, with a dark, dreary city in which a threat can stalk and kill the denizens. However, the transition from Aliens is insulting. The escape ship containing Ripley, Newt, and Hicks crashes, with Newt and Hicks being killed. What?! Two of the great characters in the mythology are wiped out without a scrap of drama? And there is no clear reason as to why. How cool would it have been to have Hicks and Newt with Ripley on the penal colony? But no, the entire notion was either not considered or jettisoned inexplicably. James Cameron and everyone involved with Aliens must have been livid. But the show goes on...

Ripley and several of the convicts who become her  de facto
allies in the fight against yet another xenomorph. The cast
is actually great, but the script was often beneath their
considerable skills.
The remainder of the story is what you might expect, and it is more akin to the first film than the second. A single xenomorph has made it onto the planet, via Ripley's escape shuttle. Of course, it starts to go on a rampage and begins slaughtering inmates. As with the first films, though, the movie tries to elevate the story above simple horror and suspense. Here, again, the ingredients were in place for this idea to work. There are several interesting and strong characters among the inmates, including an intense born-again Christian preacher, a condescending warden, and more than a few unpredictable psychopaths. And the actors are fantastic. With a half-decent script and pacing, the movie could have been excellent. Alas, the script was mostly bland, and the movie drags in several places. There are a handful of memorable scenes between Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance, and several others, but they are far too few.

The alien itself is another near-miss. Having incubated in an ox (or a dog, in the theatrical release), it is a quadriped that seems faster than the incarnations in the first films. A major problem, though, is that the appearance of the thing seems to change from scene to scene. Sometimes it seems more humanoid, especially when it is clearly being acted by a human in a special effects body suit. Other times, it looks much longer, leaner, and bovine or lupine. In these latter takes, the representation is the prodcut of CGI that simply does not hold up by today's standards.

The movie didn't feel like a waste of time, as it does bring some closure to the tale of Ellen Ripley and her repeated confrontations with the vicious xenomorph species. But it is one that is bound to disappoint those who see the greatness in the first two films. My wife, not a tremendous sci-fi fan, enjoyed the first two films quite a lot. I think she did the smart thing by declining my invitation to watch this third, far weaker installment.

Alien Resurrection (1997)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

The mediocrity continues. It even gets a bit mediocre-er

Putting the DVD into my player, my expectations were tempered, given how uneven Alien3 was. And then, lo and behold, I see the writer credit for Alien: Resurrection - Joss Whedon. Being a big fan of his short-lived series Firefly and his more recent films like The Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods, my hopes rose.

Sadly, these hopes were dashed not long into the movie.

On doing some research, Whedon has gone on record to explain how he thinks that everything that could have been done wrong with his script was done wrong. It's not hard to see what he means.

Due to some serious misunderstandings of Joss Whedon's
script, we get plenty of odd and incongruous scenes like this
one. No, it doesn't make much more sense even when
you watch the entire movie.
There are some seeds of an interesting story here, but the execution was pretty awful. Taking place 200 years after Ripley's altruistic suicide in Alien3, the heroine of the series is resurrected (imagine that) in order for scientists to get a hold of the xenomorph queen that was incubating in her. Nevermind the wretched science behind all of this (how can Ripley's DNA allow them to clone a parasite residing inside of her?), this overarching element is just a rehash of much of Aliens and Alien3.

The new elements had promise, but were severely diluted. A group of space pirates (no, they weren't headed by Robert Urich and Angelica Huston, unfortunately) boards the floating science lab on which Ripley has been revived. One of their crew, Cole, seeks to kill Ripley, having learned that this clone is actually a hybrid human-xenomorph: it looks like Ellen Ripley and has her memories, but it is extremely strong and fast, without much empathy for humans.

And so we have space pirates, misguided scientists, and a Ripley clone rushing around a spaceship trying to evade a pod of homicidal aliens. Some of the set-ups and sequences could have been rather cool, if handled with any sort of deftness. They weren't. What you get is a poorly-paced, unexciting mish-mash of movement, gunfire, yelling, and xenomorph goop.

A very lame ending to what started as a fantastic pair of movies. A real shame, this.

And Beyond?

I was actually considering watching the Aliens Versus Predator movies, just to get full closure. But given how poor the latter two Alien movies were, and the fact that reviews of the "AVP" movies are rather tragic, I've decided to save those four hours of my life.

This is still a series that should have life. Though Ridley Scott says that it will not contain any xenomorphs, Prometheus 2 is slated to hit theaters in 2016. These prequel films aside, one would think that there are enough creative writers and competent directors who could join and produce a new movie that fits better within the original canon. I can only hope.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Before I Die #525: The English Patient (1996)

Director: Daniel Minghella

Masterfully constructed and beautifully shot, The English Patient nonetheless fell a bit flat for me. This is not unlike the director's later effort, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched not long before this one.

The movie is, as you would expect, a true epic. Set before and during World War II, it follows the story of Count Lazlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and his love affair with Katherine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas). The way that their story is introduced and gradually revealed is brilliant, but I found the intended emotional impact lacking.

The movie opens with Lazlo and Katherine getting shot down by Germans in North Africa, with Lazlo being severely burned while lying next to Katherine's dead body. His body is found and transported to an Allied field hospital, where he is taken under the care of Hana (Juliette Binoche), a nurse with the terrible fortune of constantly falling in love with good men who get killed in the war. Hana decides to put Lazlo up in a bombed-out building and tend to him. From this, the movie uses flashbacks to fill us in on exactly how Lazlo came to be in such a sorry state.

Jumping back several years before the outbreak of the war, we see that Lazlo was an archaeologist who had been combing northern Africa for certain cave paintings. He is joined by Katherine and her husband, and he soon develops a deep and almost painful passion for Katherine. This is where the problems begin for me as a viewer. It was never fully clear to me why Lazlo and Katherine fall for each other. Lazlo is a taciturn, condescending man, with little to recommend him to any woman (aside from his dashing good looks, but Katherine seems to be above such superficiality). Katherine is a lively adventurer with an easy smile and quick wit. Sure, Lazlo is a moody romantic, which some would find attractive, but his actions don't often speak of admirable qualities. Given that the story of these two comprises much of the movie, it left me wanting a little more substance to their romance.

The story of Hana and her lovers, most notably the siekh
mine-sweeper Kip, contain the heart that the main story of
Lazlo and Katherine was lacking, in my view.
The more "modern" story of Hana is more interesting, though. Hana's relationships with the various men whom she loves and loses have real impact, since it is far easier to see what attracts her to the more grounded, truly heroic soldiers around her. When contrasted with Lazlo, these soldiers evoke far more empathy through Hana's loss of them, while Lazlo's loss of Katherine loses its emotional potency. This lack takes something away from the story.

The other elements of the film are difficult to criticize. Beautifully shot and edited, it is not surprising that the film raked in tons of awards back in 1996. The cinematography and acting justifiably invite comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia. The expanding and contracting scope of the personal wars within a greater, global war is conveyed wonderfully, so fans of large-scale, epic love stories are sure to be pleased.

The English Patient looks and often feels great. There are, however, just a few pieces of true heart that were missing for me to completely love it. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

New Release! The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

Have no fear! This review contains no spoilers!

Director: Francis Lawrence

This is certainly not a series that, on my own, I would have sought out. However, when the book series had reached the level of popularity that couldn't be ignored, I caved and read the first book, The Hunger Games. It was decent enough, for a young adult novel that relies mostly on borrowed ideas melded together in a plot-driven action tale. I began the second book, Catching Fire, but grew bored rather quickly and gave up.

I saw the first film, which I thought was entertaining enough, and rather true to the source novel. The second film was a little more of a chore to watch, taking nearly an hour to get past a dull emotional slog that only fans of the books could probably find engaging. Still, it was decent enough that I was OK with the prospect of joining some family members to take in the recent installment of the films: Mockingjay, Part 1.

If you've read any of the accusations leveled towards the movie that it is a blatant money grab, I can't completely disagree with them. One can argue that this two-hour-and-twenty minute movie really had only about an hour of solid material in it. While it does move the plot forward, it does so intermittently, with a lot of bland, emotionally drab filler in between.

Without giving anything away, the heroine of the series, Katniss Everdeen, has survived the rigors of her second Hunger Games, as chronicled in Catching Fire. However, she is now embroiled in a nation-wide revolution to overthrow the seemingly invincible aristocracy based in the Capitol. While there are some action sequences in the movie, illustrating the revolution's military movements, much of the movie focuses on Katiss's involvement in a large-scale propaganda war. These media-driven machinations play out through television screens, which I found watered down most of the emotional impact they might otherwise have.

Sorry, but no amount of future chic clothing or icy glares can
add  the gravity that this film was trying so desperately to
convey to us viewers.
A much larger problem is the development of Katniss's character. For someone who made her name with a completely selfless act of altruistic sacrifice by taking her sister's place in the Hunger Games two years prior, she becomes annoyingly self-absorbed. Sure, she's had some horrible things happen to her, but she starts to act and behave in ways that don't conform at all with who she was or what she was about as this series began. Change is one thing, but what Katniss becomes smacks a little too much of weak writing in the name of contrived drama. It felt as if the writers, whether it was novelist Suzanne Collins or the movie's script writers, were trying to appeal to teen readers' base egoism. It's also probably just simple misfortune for everyone involved that Jennifer Lawrence has, since first bringing Katniss to life a few years ago, outgrown this role in every way. At this stage, she's far too strong an actress to be playing an inexplicably whining teen.

Mockingjay, Part 1 may ultimately fit better within the larger scale of the entire series, once the final film comes out next year. For now, though, it is easily the weakest of the series, and it is one that only people familiar with the series should bother seeing. First-time viewers who have neither read the books nor seen the first two film adaptations will likely be left wondering what the fuss is about.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

New Release: Interstellar (2014)

Have no fear - there are no spoilers in this review.

Director: Christopher Nolan

It's certainly not a bad movie, but it's one that leaves a few things to be desired.

Christopher Nolan has always loved multi-tiered stories. Whether he's layering experience with memory as in Memento, layering illusion and showmanship with personal desires as in The Prestige, layering heroism and villainy with their own social constructs as in the Dark Knight trilogy, or any of his other movies, his films always operate on a few levels. Interstellar in no different. Unlike his best films, though, this one tries to add at least one stratum too many.

The story is mostly that of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot and engineer who is living on a future earth that is slowly dying of a massive and growing blight, a la the Dust Bowl of the 1930s Midwest U.S. This one, though, is on a global scale. In a last-ditch effort to escape the seeming fate of humanity slowly choking to death on its home planet, Cooper is enlisted for a mission through a wormhole next to Saturn, beyond which he hopes to find a habitable alternative planet. Once through the hole, though, things do not go exactly as planned, forcing Cooper and his fellow astronauts to make several extremely difficult decisions that weigh their own beliefs and hopes with those of all humanity.

Many of the themes in the movie are worthy of speculation and make for some solid food for thought. The place of exploration in our society, especially when balanced against far more immediate problems, is one that people have always struggled with. In Interstellar, this makes for a legitimate source of conflict, especially as the success of Cooper's mission is far from guaranteed. Then of course, are the tremendous sacrifices that the boldest explorers must make, and not just to life and limb. When Cooper and his crew near a planet where time is distorted by gravity, they must also consider how their aging will be slowed immensely, leaving everything and everyone they know to age far more quickly while they explore. The film does a very nice job of making these theoretical consequences of space exploration more tangible and impacting on the characters.

I'm no astrophysicist, but much of the science behind the film seems solid; at least, as far as the physical rigors and obstacles which need to be overcome are concerned. These days, there have been so many excellent documentary series done on such topics that we laypeople can have a pretty good idea of what things are like for astronauts, and Nolan seems to have done all of his homework. It helps that the visuals are extremely well done, and several scenes and sequences do an excellent job of capturing the vastness and majesty of the cosmos.

The relationship between Murph and her father is actually
endearing for the first part of the film, but grows a bit stale
as things progress. It eventually comprises what I found to
be one of the biggest weaknesses of the tale.
Where the movie goes astray is with the "human" layer of the tale. Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky made thoughtful, insightful, artistic statements about humanity's probable destiny in space and the collective psyche of our species. Without giving away anything, I can say that I felt Nolan's attempt to weave human emotion into the story was a tad forced, with extremely shaky support. This thin tether is meant to be the link between Cooper deep in space and his daughter, Murph, back on Earth. The connection works at certain points in the movie, but is often either baffling or lacking the desired emotional effect.

Another problem I have with the film is the casting and acting. While Matthew McConaughey has proven himself to be a legitimately excellent actor in recent years, I was annoyed by the constantly hushed drone that he chose to speak in through nearly the whole movie. A tad more baffling was Nolan's choice to cast Anne Hathaway as the fellow astronaut/astrophysicist Brand. She's not terrible, but I found her lacking some of the grit, confidence, and stoicism that I associate with such professionals. I wonder if we're not starting to see Nolan fall in love with some of his own casting choices; what else would make him recast "Catwoman" in such a way? There are a few other casting choices that made me scratch my head, but I don't want to give away too much.

So the movie is a decent one, but I would have to put it towards the bottom of the Christopher Nolan catalog, especially when weighed against its huge ambition and massive budget. Nolan has never, in my view, made a "bad" movie. He has, however, made a few that smack of a bit of pretension and fall a bit short of his lofty goals. Interstellar is one of these. I would recommend that nearly anyone watch it once, but I would caution against expecting a masterpiece. Ultimately, the film just made me want to re-watch Europa Report at the earliest possible chance.