Friday, December 31, 2010
Starring Maynard James Keenan, Eric Glomski, Tim Alexander
Take a moment to conjure into your head your favorite song. Close your eyes and really listen to it - mentally peel away each layer and savor the different textures each movement of the song brings. When you take the time to experience music that way, it can be an edifying experience. The best musicians compose tunes that slowly let their flavors unfold and echo in the mind long after the listener has stopped listening.
A similar experience can be had, or so the thesis of Blood Into Wine goes, when one takes the time to consume a glass of fermented grape juice. Wine, like a song, needs to be nurtured and cared for, composed using different, and sometimes opposing, elements. The more thought and care that goes into making a wine, the better the wine will be, and the more pleasurable the drinking experience for the consumer.
A documentary that explores the complex process of wine making, Blood Into Wine is a love letter to those who spend years of their lives choosing the landscape, cultivating the ingredients, protecting the crops, harvesting the fruits, mixing the flavors, and ultimately bottling the aromatic alcoholic beverage. At the same time, it also peeks into the private life of one of rock and roll's most private and enigmatic front-man: Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of the progressive rock unit (and one of my personal favorite bands) Tool.
Notorious for shunning the press and shunning perspicuity when it comes to questions about their music, Tool have spent almost two decades letting their four full-length albums speak for themselves. As the lead singer, Keenan has spent that same amount of time cryptically fending off those who seek to find the answers to how and why he does what he does. In the mid '90's, he moved to Jerome, a small town smack dab in he middle of Arizona where, in order to tackle new challenges, he decided to become a wine maker in addition to being a platinum selling music artist. Teaming with fellow wine-enthusiast (and experienced wine creator extraordinaire) Eric Glomski, Keenan spent years juggling the rigorous nature of touring with Tool (and A Perfect Circle AND Puscifer, two other Maynard-fronted rock bands) with the difficulties of owning and operating a small winery in a location not usually thought of as being conducive to success in such an industry. Using the same techniques that he utilizes to create Tool's unique and complex songs to invent new and exciting flavors of wine, the film tracks Keenan and Glomski's failures and fortunes, with injections of witty humor for fun.
Knowing that Keenan would rather approach aspects of his private life in a darkly comedic way allows directors Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke more access to the man while offering up laughs to the viewer. After one instance of giving a very thought-provoking answer to a very tired question, it's revealed that Keenan is sitting on a toilet, and voices concern about the camera crew following him around everywhere he goes. One gets the feeling that the exchange for allowing insight into this part of Keenan was to let him do whatever he wanted to do, and have it be left up to the viewer on whether or not what he's offering up is authentic or not. This is something Keenan explicitly states during the documentary, although it's questionable as to whether or not he's being truthful or trustworthy with that declaration as well.
This is a theme that fits right in to Blood Into Wine, although it certainly may be frustrating to some viewers. You take out of a work of art what you want, much like tasting a wine. The more time you take to taste the layers and flavors of the art/wine, the more you'll get from the experience. To wit, the documentary has its own layers and flavors that need to be uncovered with a thorough and attentive viewing. At times it becomes enraptured with the science of how the DNA structure of grapes work and the chemical process of breaking down that structure and creating the fermented juices that go into making the wine. The clinical information is always conveyed, though, in an earthy setting - much of the documentary takes place outside, with beautiful Arizona landscapes as backdrops. Much of the time the subjects are down in the dirt while discussing their processes, and the film wisely eschews a talking-head format, much to its advantage.
Throughout its running time, Blood Into Wine also drops on the viewer some fun, sometimes obscure cameos. Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Resident Evil) spends a few minutes onscreen, as does comedian Patton Oswalt and Primus drummer Tim Alexander. As a fan of these individuals, it was a treat to see them interacting with each other while either adding a humorous aspect to the film or conveying narrative information.
Fascinating for both wine connoisseur and Tool fans alike, Blood Into Wine is an intriguing and hugely satisfying documentary film. It provides insight into an industry and process that is much more complex than most people realize, while providing a parallel to that complexity in a musician that many people thought would remain inaccessible to the end of days.
Addendum: I offer up Tool's song "Lateralus" as an example of the musical equivalent of a fine wine, dense with many layers and textures, and simply a grand experience. Even if you have an aversion to rock music, slide on some headphones, close your eyes, and prepare for a dramatic and spiritually uplifting experience here.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
There are only a handful of directors currently working who can make a film that sends me from a theater buzzing with emotion and dizzy with the feeling that I just watched a small step in the evolution of cinema itself. There are an even smaller number who make me feel that way with every single one of their films. One of those filmmakers is Darren Aronofsky, whose new film, Black Swan, is his finest and most impressive work.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer, consumed with the art of ballet. When she's not dancing she's dreaming about it, and when she's done dreaming about it, she's living it. Her dream is to play that Swan Queen in her dance troupe's production of Swan Lake. So obsessed with the play is Nina that she begins to have paranoid delusions that new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), is trying to sabotage Nina's chances at obtaining the coveted role. Between trying to please her overprotective failed ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey), wrestling with sexual feelings for her instructor Thomas (Vincent Cassel), and dealing with bodily injury - which threatens her dancing career, Nina slowly descends into a world of madness and self-destruction.
It's a world that Aronofsky has tackled in all of his films, beginning with his independent debut Pi and continuing through 2008's Academy Award nominated The Wrestler. In fact, Black Swan can be seen as a companion piece in theme, if not tone, to The Wrestler, with lead characters that are on the opposite ends of the same coin. Randy "The Ram" Robinson and Nina Sayers both exist with their lifelines tethered to their respective art - wrestling for Randy and ballet for Nina.
The difference, though, is that unlike Randy, who faced the reality of being an aging professional wrestler with a clarity that debilitated him internally, Nina externalizes her fear of that tether being severed, and her irrationality yields hallucinations and begets a mental collapse. Almost immediately we see that the world Nina occupies is left-of-center, and we acknowledge that it is of her own doing that her world is that way. Innocent and naive, Nina sabotages her passions again and again, with a flawed determination of reaching the impossibility of perfection. She sees Beth, the dancer she works to replace (Winona Ryder in a small, but effectively creepy role), as the epitome of what she strives for. The harder she strives, the easier it becomes for her mind to break from reality.
Aronofsky illustrates Nina's psychotic break with visual and auditory cues that are sometimes subtle, other times over-the-top. Whether it's slight sounds of flapping wings on a train, or a pair of eyes moving in a painting, the director constantly aims to unsettle the viewer. While the film is consistently tense throughout (until the last act, in which the intensity is ramped up to an almost unbearable degree), Aronofsky never lets the urge to frighten overtake his steady and controlled take of the drama unfolding. Like Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, Black Swan is horror movie that those who don't watch horror movies can enjoy, and will please even the most die-hard horror aficionado.
While there's relatively little gore in Black Swan, it does have its fair share of grotesque imagery, captured magnificently by Matthew Libatique's cinematography. The movie is a perfect example of a film with luscious photography that isn't all magic-hour horizons and blue sky back-dropped landscapes. Libatique and Aronofsky have been working together for so long that the director and cinematographer seem to function as one together, which is much to the benefit of Black Swan's endlessly fascinating series of sequences. Whether it be a choreographed ballet dance or a terrifyingly staged horror sequence, Libatique's camera lends Aronofsky's direction the exact tone and style needed for each scene. It's remarkable to watch.
Also remarkable to watch is Natalie Portman, who turns in not only the best performance of her career and the best performance of 2010, but what might actually end up being, years from now when I assess these sorts of things, one of my favorite performances by an actress ever. Portman has never been in command of a character as well as she is here. From her athletic execution of the dance sequences, to subtle facial expressions, it appears the actress threw herself into the role of Nina the way Nina attacks the part of Swan Queen. I don't want to sell Portman short, because I believe she's always been very talented, but I don't know if we'll ever see her reach the heights she has been to in Black Swan.
Not to be out done, Mila Kunis also impresses as the carefree, anything goes Lily. Seductive and outgoing in ways that Nina can and will never be, Kunis is equal parts sexy and sinister, and deadly effective in the role at that. It's easy to see why Nina has an attraction to Lily, as Kunis's large eyes express an intoxicating openness that invites those with lesser life-experience.
Furthermore, Vincent Cassel takes what might have been a one-note character and turns him into an authoritative figure with an unusual way of coaxing greatness from his students. While it's easy to think of Cassel's Thomas as nothing more than a manipulative sleazebag, Cassel injects a skewed humanity into the character who, while not lovable, is certainly more multifaceted and more likable than the script maintains.
Adding to the richness of the cinematography and acting is Clint Mansell's sumptuous score. Taking Tschaikovsky's theme from Swan Lake and building themes of horror and obsession on top of it, Mansell creates yet another effective score that you'll most likely recognize in trailers and movie ads years from now. (His Lux Aeterna piece from Requiem for a Dream has been used in numerous trailers, as has his work from The Fountain). Like Aronofsky's work with Libatique, the collaboration with Mansell creates moving images almost too powerful for the screen, and the three of them working together gives rise to the feeling of euphoria that hits me while watching an Aronofsky film.
It can not be overstated how well Black Swan works as a film, and how perfectly its elements come together to create a work of art that feels original and edifying. Some viewers may be exasperated by its deliberately paced narrative, which seems to sag mid-film. But those who open themselves up to its visual beauty, marvel at its innovative audio, and appreciate the highly skilled performances will find a film unlike most they've ever seen. It's unequivocally the best film of 2010.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Terrence Malick is a director who took 20 years off from work after he finished the film Days of Heaven only to return in 1998 with the WWII epic The Thin Red Line, which was overshadowed by that other war movie Tom Hanks starred in. He then dropped The New World on us in 2005, and next year will see his new film The Tree of Life hit theaters. Three films in thirteen years? Slow down, Malick. Your '80's self is wondering who that 21st century workaholic is.
Malick's films seem to divide film fans - although even those that don't like his films still seem to respect the man and his work on some level. Some people feel his narratives are meandering and pretentious. Others, including myself, think his poetic approach to dialogue and the heady, existential earth that all of his films blossom from are, while sometimes difficult to connect with on a human plane, pretty transcendental on a spiritual level. Characters in a Terrence Malick film don't feel so much like people interacting as they do parts of the soul.
Anyway, enough of me all trying to sound smart and sensitive. The trailer for Tree of Life is up at Apple.com/trailers, and it's about as beautiful as you'd expect a Malick film to look. I've watched this sucker three times and I'm pretty much in awe. Can't quite nail down the narrative, but it obviously has something to do with the father/son bond and the beginning/end of time. The whole thing pretty much puts a lump in my throat on every viewing.
There I go, sounding all sensitive again.
The trailer is embedded below, but I strongly suggest you watch this thing of beauty in 1080p, over at Apple's site, if you can.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
For a full list of nominee, go here.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
I'm woefully ignorant when it comes to the Marvel Universe. I've never read one issue of an Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Captain America, et al. comic book, and I just recently read my first X-Men hardcover for the first time a few months ago. The only things I know about these characters is what I see in the film adaptations of their stories, and that includes the latest Marvel superhero to get the cinematic treatment, Thor, who I know (through general knowledge) to be a Norse god that carries a huge GDF'in hammer.
The film stars Chris Hemsworth (who played the father of James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot) as the titular character with daddy issues, after being cast down out of Asgard and down to Earth by his pops Odin (a cycloptic Anthony Hopkins). I know very little of what to expect when this is released next summer except that I'm sure it will be bombastic, as it's directed by Kenneth Branagh. I've generally been a fan of Branagh's directorial work throughout the years - I'm probably one of six fans worldwide of his 1994 adaptation Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. That movie is so gloriously insane that I can't help but kind of love it. If Branagh brings that same over-the-top and demented glee and injects it into Thor (and it looks like he did), then it's going to be a blast. Dumb and bloated, sure. But a blast nonetheless.
The film also stars my girlfriend Natalie Portman and the future godfather of our children Idris Elba. Thor opens May 2011.
Fun fact: I stood next to Clark Gregg (who plays Agent Coulson, the shady dude interviewing Thor at the beginning of the trailer) in a bathroom when I attended San Diego Comic-Con last July. That was right before I almost got run down by Jason Schwartzman and his posse when they rounded a corner and didn't see me standing in the hallway. Those are my two pathetic brushes with celebrity. I don't count the time my brother and I stared Amy Adams right out of a movie theater lobby.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
With less than 3 1/2 weeks until the end of the year, December is looking to be anemic when it comes to quality films at your local theater. The nauseating trailer for Yogi Bear is almost enough to keep me more than 100 feet away from a theatrical release from now until 2012. On top of that there's Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro trying to milk the one note joke that started with Meet the Parents, The Chronicles of Narnia brings us another boring epic with The Dawn Treader, and Jack Black makes goofy faces all the way to the bank with Gulliver's Travels, squirting that last bit of goodwill he had worked up with Tropic Thunder down the toilet.
Of course there are a few films that look interesting enough - Tron: Legacy certainly seems to be a feast for the eyes, and The Fighter brings together the three egos of David O. Russell, Christian Bale, and Mark Wahlberg, which should make for some uncomfortable behind-the-scenes YouTube videos.
As much as I'm looking forward to those two films, their trailers just haven't excited me as much as the next two have. You've most likely been exposed to at least one of these movie previews, as they're both more than a few months old, but I think they're not only both well worth watching over again, but the movies themselves will live up to the promise of their trailers.
The first trailer is for the upcoming movie from Joel and Ethan Coen: True Grit. Not only do I think the Coen brothers are the best and most important American filmmakers living today, but they also happen to be my favorite directors as well. Their films define the word unique, even when they're adaptations of pre-existing material (No Country For Old Men). True Grit is their second adaptation in four films, and it looks to be another win for the brothers. This is also their second collaboration with Jeff Bridges, their first birthing one of the great slacker characters of cinema, Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski in The Big Lebowski. From interviews, Ethan and Joel have stated that their version of True Grit clings closer to Charles Porti's 1969 novel than the John Wayne starring film of the same name. I haven't had the pleasure of viewing the original film, and I most likely won't bother until after the Coen's version. Watch the trailer below or, for a downloadable version, check it out at Apple Trailers here.
The next film comes from another very important American filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky blew minds with his late 90's independent film Pi, and then continued to release innovative and critically acclaimed films such as Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler. His new film, Black Swan, appears to be a Dario Argento inspired look into the world of ballet, where the pressure of competition can transform the innocent into monsters. The film is in limited release right now (and making some hefty coin at the box office, averaging $80,212 per screen last weekend at 18 screens throughout the US), and most likely I will drive to the closest theater playing the film (Amherst, Massachusetts on December 17) to see it. The Black Swan trailer is below, and head on over to Apple Trailers for a music video and a behind the scenes featurette.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Feast your eyes (and ears) on the trailer, embedded below, just don't get any ideas that the final film is going to be anywhere near as beautiful.
The plot to the Jodi Foster directed The Beaver pretty much describes star Mel Gibson's current predicament succinctly: formerly loved (and lovable) man has a fall from grace and is, in turn, loathed and kicked to the dirt by those closest to him and pretty much everyone else who knows him as well. Man then finds a beaver puppet which he wears at all times as a therapeutic device to win back the hearts of those he lost.
Alright, that last part is where Foster's film and Gibson's life divorce plot-wise, obviously. But it's hard not to watch the trailer for The Beaver and see a reflection of the mega-star's personal life.
It's also hard not to watch it and not be overwhelmed by the sugary, feel-goodness of it all. When I first heard of The Beaver, I imagined some black comedy about a truly troubled individual. The guy wear's a beaver puppet on his hand that he talks to, for the love of God. But it appears the actual film is striving for a more inspiring, James L. Brooks affair.
The trailer is fairly terrible, complete with banal voice-over and all the important lessons the film teaches thrown at us in the last thirty seconds. We won't know if the movie will rehabilitate Gibson's image with the public until it's release, but from what I'm seeing here it certainly won't rehabilitate his career, which was dealt a hefty blow with the truly awful Edge of Darkness, the second worst film this year.
Check out Jodi Foster's The Beaver right here.
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino
Faster, the new film in which Dwayne Johnson tries once again to be crowned King Action Hero, begins promisingly enough. After being released from prison, Johnson's character - dubbed only "Driver" by on-screen text - walks to the local impound, jumps in a '70 Chevy Chevelle SS, and proceeds to execute the first poor sucker in a group of men who betrayed and killed his brother after a bank robbery.
With the determination of a spurned Jersey housewife, Johnson is most effective in the film when the script calls for him to grit his teeth, squint, and generally look like he's about to throw a tree through someone's face. The former professional wrestler has the build of a Panzer tank, but hurtles through the first half hour of the movie like the runaway train from Tony Scott's Unstoppable. If Faster had kept it simple for the rest of the film and followed Driver on the hunt for each and every kill, it would have been a sweet, violent blast of adrenaline. Unfortunately, since Faster is a movie and movie's need stories, it doesn't, and the story it concocts is as disjointed as it is bulky.
Billy Bob Thornton is Cop, a - you got it - police detective on the hunt Driver. Cop gets a nice little introduction where we learn he's addicted to heroin. Not only is he a drug-addicted sleaze, he's also a joke on the force. His partner, Cicero (Carla Gugino) can't stand him, and neither can his estranged wife Marina (Moon Bloodgood). In a sub-plot that seems to come straight from another movie, Cop fights to be back in the lives of his wife and child, while telling Marina he'll kick the heroin habit for good. It's trite, melodramatic stuff, and it doesn't belong in a film that's introduced as one man's vengeance against those who wronged him.
Neither does another plot involving Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Jake Gyllenhaal's doppelganger), a New Age assassin with more insecurity issues than weapons to kill people with. While on missions he's also on the phone with his therapist. When not on missions he's trying to convince his girlfriend (Maggie Grace) that he's going to give up the assassination game once and for all. Soon. He promises. Just after this last job. While Killer is actually an interesting character and he's played with sexy danger by Jackson-Cohen, his story, like Cop's, appears grafted on from a completely different screenplay. At points, especially during Killer's wedding, I felt as if a movie from the next theater over had accidentally been projected onto our screen.
And therein lies the problem with Faster. It's never consistent, and it felt like the filmmakers wanted the film to be more important than it actually is. It also changes gears from a revenge flick to a Who Done It?, as Driver uncovers secrets about his brother's killing that may or may not involve his father, mother, and corrupt police officials. It's a shame that Faster becomes bogged down with unnecessary story complications and subplots.
It's also a shame that Faster doesn't live up to its potential as an ultraviolent action piece, and one that could finally elevate Dwayne Johnson to the action star status he's always strived attain. While the action in Faster is decent at best, it's surprisingly slow in parts, and doesn't take full advantage of its star's physical ability. In one scene, Driver comes to a fight involving sharp hand weapons with a hulking beast of a man, but the fight is over soon after the first punch is thrown. While it may be a more realistic portrayal of what a hand-to-knife-to-ice-pick fight would be like, it's disappointing that director George Tillman Jr. didn't choreograph a UFC style rumble that perhaps could have been the centerpiece of the film and a scene that could have been a reference point for Johnson's action star abilities.
While not a complete waste of film, Faster is most certainly disappointing, and its not going to do any favors for Mr. Johnson. If the movie had cut out all of the fat and accepted its role as a lean, mean, vengeance machine, Faster could have been one of the best action films of the year. Instead it's only a mildly entertaining, with only a few rousing kills and a likeable ant-hero we just don't get to spend enough time with. Better luck next time, Dwayne.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
A few years ago, director Duncan Jones (pictured, right) dropped one of the best science fiction films of the past decade on us with Moon (streaming instantly through Netflix, for those of you with an account), which starred Sam Rockwell as the lone worker on the gigantic rock that orbits our planet who slowly begins to lose his mind when his identical twin shows up.
Jones has been busy working on his sophomore effort Source Code for some time, and the first official trailer has hit the web. It features Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier who is thrust into the body of a man on a train that is bombed outside of Chicago. Apparently using a program called "source code", Gyllenhaal is able to relive the last 8 minutes of the man's life in order to find the individual responsible for the bombing and, therefore, stop it.
The trailer doesn't really impress as anything more than a lightweight version of 12 Monkeys, and I certainly have never been too bowled over by Jake Gyllenhaal's acting ability. But the presence of Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright is promising, and my Michelle Monaghan crush should ease a viewing. Also, I'm such a fan of Moon that not even a slightly-disappointing trailer can dull my excitement for Jones's follow-up. I hope Source Code turns out to be a smarter-than-your-average action-oriented science fiction film.
See the trailer here.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara
The way 127 Hours portrays him, Aaron Ralston (based on the real-life mountain climber/biker/adventurer extraordinaire of the same name) is more in touch with the human condition the further he is from humanity. Rejecting a last minute cell-phone call from his mother, brushing off a coworker, and losing interest in his girlfriend (Clemence Poesy), Ralston (James Franco) heads out to the canyons of Utah for a day of traversing rocky terrain, spelunking shallow caverns, and steering as far away from his fellow man as possibly.
That plan has a wrench thrown into it when Aaron stumbles upon Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), two friends stranded in the middle of nowhere after getting lost hiking. After leading the ladies to their destination, Ralston shows them an underground pond, where the three of them frolic for a short while before Aaron decides he's had enough human contact for the day and quickly sets off down his own path. "I don't think we figured into his day at all," says Kristi, almost offended. Don't feel bad, Kristi. No one figured into Aaron Ralston's day. Which is unfortunate for our hero, because his day is about to get a whole heck of a lot worse than going (near) skinny-dipping with two attractive females.
Soon (but not soon enough) after departing his new friends, Aaron becomes involved in what is surely every outdoorsman's worst nightmare: he falls into a cavern and becomes trapped by a boulder. A boulder heavy enough to withstand the strength of one man trying to lift it. Through a stroke of blind luck, the rock has only pinned his right arm, leaving his 3 other limbs free (hey, when you're out on your own and practically crushed by a thousand year old gigantic stone, there is such a thing as blind luck). Through a stroke of bad luck, Ralston doesn't have many supplies that would help him on his person. Nor does he have anyone close to him with the knowledge of his whereabouts.
127 Hours is directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later, Trainspotting) and written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and the two have created a jolting sugar-high of a film that is relentlessly fast paced and exciting, even though it never once strays from the protagonists predicament.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that 127 Hours doesn't play out like your usual search and rescue film. There's no cross-cutting to the victim's family, no scenes of frantic parents desperately contacting the authorities to conduct a hunt for their lost son. The film focuses exclusively on the man under the boulder, and we only see what he sees and experience what he experiences.
At first, the situation doesn't seem so severe. Ralston curiously observes his arm under the rock, and we see in his eyes he feels he can either slip his arm right out or push the heavy object off of it. Of course, the action is easier thought-of than done, and he spends the next five days fighting fatigue, dehydration, and audio/visual hallucinations, which Boyle weaves seamlessly into the film. Like our lead character, we're never really sure what we're seeing is real, but we're always aware of who the people are we're seeing, how they fit into Ralston's life and with what purpose. He fantasizes about his first memories with his family - his father taking him to see a mountain sunrise, his sister playing the piano. The more time that passes and the more weathered his body and mind become, the more heavily the hallucinations/memories figure into the film and Ralston's drive to escape the cavern and reconnect (or perhaps connect for the first time?) with his family. Boyle has experimented with weaving his characters hallucinations into his films before (28 Days Later, Trainspotting), but never have they become such a driving force in the narrative as in 127 Hours.
James Franco, an actor about due for the highest award Hollywood can give him, conveys his character's quick descent from confident to terrified to defeated and back again with talent that eludes a lot of young actors today. 127 Hours is, mostly, a one man show and, like Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild, Franco plays Ralston as a charming but slightly naive free spirit. Ralston, of course, isn't as extreme in his rejection of society's rigid structure as Hirsch's Christopher McCandless was, but Boyle is sure to remind us, with a credits sequence that juxtaposes shots of crowds and the chaos of urban life, that Aaron preferred the beautiful solitude of uninhabited nature. Using a video camera (one of the few things he did bring along with him) as a confessional, Ralston is able to explore emotions and feelings he probably hasn't felt in a long time, and Franco delivers a complete and amazing performance.
Much has been made of the film's "escape" sequence, where Ralston cuts off his right arm in order to free himself from confinement. (That's not a spoiler, by the way. The true story of the real Aaron Ralston has been floating around for years). There were tales of viewers passing out at early screenings which appear to have been confirmed. The scene, while graphic and somewhat stomach-churning, begins and ends fairly quickly. It's surely an intense few minutes of screentime, but a quick glance away from the movie should quell any feelings of nausea one may experience.
For a film about a man trapped in one place unable to move that never once, after the first ten minutes, leaves that man's side, 127 Hours is one of the most exciting and inspiring films of the year. Danny Boyle has crafted a film that is a surprising rush of adrenaline, for having one fixed location. It's an edgy film, and one that flips the bird to traditional screenplay form and structure. It's not an easy movie to watch, and since there are no other characters to connect with if you don't like Aaron Ralston you'll most likely feel the same way about the film. Those looking for a unique experience, though, (much like he was) will find much to enjoy here.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
This is a Harry Potter film for the fans. After ten years, the franchise delivers the beginning of the end - part one of the adaptation of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It's a film that doesn't ease newbies and people unfamiliar with the Potter universe into the story (although technically the films long ago stopped catering to those people anyway), and instead treats those who have been paying attention for a decade to a rich and dramatic experience. This is a film that is for those individuals who watched the first film as a wide-eyed, innocent young child, grew up with the sequels over the years, discovered, like Harry and his friends, that while life is magical it can also be depressing and dangerous, and are now entering life for the first time on their own. This is an (young) adult film - leave your little brothers or sisters home with their stuffed hippogriffs. There's nothing for them here.
Though the inexperienced would most likely be lost coming cold into the seventh film in a franchise of eight, it wouldn't be difficult to get the general impression of what's been going on in Harry's world, if not the specifics. Summarily: the world has gone to hell. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), Harry's mortal enemy, has returned for good and is instituting a tyrannical form of rule in the wizarding world. Purging the land of all muggle (humans without magical powers) born wizards and witches, Voldemort and his followers (referred to as Death Eaters) launch a massive manhunt for Harry Potter and his friends. Meanwhile, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are not only on the run, but also on the hunt for Voldemort's Horcruxes (items that Voldemort has stored pieces of his soul in). In order to destroy Voldemort, they must destroy the Horcruxes.
Again, the film doesn't do much to school newcomers to the story, characters (both major and minor), and events, but at this point in the franchise that's not a problem. It's not a problem because it gives the filmmakers room to dig deep into Harry and his friends, and explore the fierce and unforgiving world that is young adulthood.
The best part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is the care that director David Yates has put into portraying the changing dynamic between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. There's a long section of the film in which the three friends are doing nothing but camping and traveling. What could have been a real slog to sit through (it's a slog to read, I can tell you that much) is turned into a series of ever-increasing moments of tension, with Ron's jealousy and Harry's ego creating friction between the two. The characters live in a world where magic is no longer fun and exciting, but dangerous and deadly, and it's almost heartbreaking to see the three of them becoming cynical and losing hope. At one point, Hermione suggests to Harry that they stop running and hiding, and simply stay where they are, protected by magical enchantments, and grow old together. It's a touching and bittersweet moment, and one that really captures how dark and emotionally draining the film is as a whole.
But it's not all gloom and doom in Potter-land. Yates has built-in some of the funniest moments of the franchise into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. Most of the yucks come from secondary characters, such as George and Fred Weasley, or from Dobby the House Elf (who looks better as a CG creation than he did in The Chamber of Secrets and is also far less annoying), but there are a few moments of levity from our main trio as well. Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint have become solid dramatic actors, but also have developed nice senses of comedic timing as well. There's also a nice little moment mid-camping sequence, where Harry and Hermione, after a dramatic exit from Ron, dance to Nick Cave's "O Children." It's a happy, slightly up-lifting scene that's unlike any that has come in the franchise before, and it's a nice display of how much more mature these films have become (thematically, tonally, and technically) over the years.
Although by no means an action film, Deathly Hallows Part 1 does feature its fair share of tense and wonderfully directed action sequences. Yates has mastered this aspect of these films, and the battles in this one are some of the best the series has seen (the only exception being a last act chase through the woods, which features far too much shaky cam and frame-dropping. Thankfully that's the only misstep action wise). Magic has never seemed so completely destructive when in the wrong hands, and many scenes that begin benignly explode violently into fire and brimstone.
Speaking of violence, this film is almost aggressively so. My suggestion above to leave the little kids home shouldn't be dismissed. There are images littered throughout Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 that will no doubt trouble any child under the age of ten. One character is tortured and the word "mudblood" carved into her arm. Another has an arm almost torn off, and the make-up effect had even me squirming in my seat. Young children would also likely be upset by the sheer nastiness of the creep-factor in the film as well. One particular sequence features a snake shedding a costume of human skin. It's a fantastically dark film that doesn't hold back on the grotesque and upsetting.
While we spend most of the film with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, we do get to chill with some fine supporting cast as well (a staple of the Harry Potter films). Bill Nighy has a small role as minister of magic Rufus Scrimgeour. Jason Isaacs returns as Luscious Malfoy, and Brendan Gleeson is Mad-Eye Moody. The biggest (and most grin-inducing, for me anyway) casting surprise was Peter Mullan as Yaxley, a Death Eater with a braided pony tail to end all braided pony tails. Mullan has become one of my favorite character actors, and although he has a very small amount of screen time in this film, he makes an impression as an evil and lethal minion of the Dark Lord.
It was rumored that the filmmakers, while making Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, knew they were going to split the film into two sections, but had no idea where they were going to end the first and begin the second. As Part 1 progresses, it's obvious that was the case. The last forty minutes of the film simply feel like the search for a cut-off point. It's a long rush to find an ending, and it's the film's only downfall. While it's ambitious that the film is structured the way it is, it's also exhausting - not because of length, but because of content. So much occurs during the last act that it's like the film was attempting to make up for the wandering, slow midsection of the film. Then the film abruptly stops. It's an odd move, but one that makes sense, and since the film does a terrific job of keeping the audience interested in what will happen next (even when it slows to a crawl), it's going to be a long eight months for Part 2.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is fairly impressive, and a huge step forward for a franchise that has been taking mostly small, shaky ones for awhile now. Not since the Lord of the Rings films has there been a fantasy movie that feels like our characters are in true danger, there is so much at stake, and the world could implode at any moment. This is an impactful film, and if the filmmakers nail the second half as well as JK Rowling nailed the last half of her book, the Harry Potter franchise could end up being the most impressive series of films cinema has ever seen.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
If you haven't checked out The Everything Film Show in a while, it may be time to tune back in! Check out the show's upcoming guests.
- This week, Nov. 11, the show welcomes G4tv's wildly popular "Attack of the Show" co-host Alison Haislip.
- Nov. 18. the crew will chat with Phillip Montgomery and Matt DeRoss, whose new documentary "ReGeneration" featuring Noam Chomsky is soon screening at the Artivist Film Festival in Hollywood, New York, and Rio, Brazil.
- Nov. 24 everybody is getting together for a rare Wednesday show to chat with Josh Davidson, a Baltimore filmmaker whose most recent project was shot using only two iPhone 4s.
- Dec. 2 will be a live interview with Tray Chaney, who appeared for five years as the character Malik 'Poot' Carr on HBO's "The Wire," among other projects.
And of course, there are always discussion and reviews of the latest movie theater releases and other features on the show.
The show is live every Thursday at 11 p.m. EST (8 p.m. PST) online at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/theeverythingfilmshow or by calling 347-945-7832, and you can also check out past episodes anytime on demand.
See you in the live online forum during the show!
Monday, November 8, 2010
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance
Anyone who's paid even the slightest bit of attention to inside-baseball when it comes to movies knows the infamy that surrounds the making of Alien 3. Director David Fincher famously walked away from the film after 20th Century Fox made what seemed to be an infinite amount of demands on the director and then re-cut the film after it was complete into a version Fincher wanted no part of. He still refuses to talk about the film to this day, even though he's gone on to have a remarkably successful career both commercially and critically. If the creation of Aliens showed that leaving a young, visionary director to his own devices can birth a film that not only pleases audiences but becomes historically important cinematically, the story behind Alien 3 shows that interference from bean-counters and creatively inept executives can destroy what could have been a brilliantly conceived ending to a brilliant trilogy.
After Alien and its sequel Aliens set the financial and pop-culture worlds ablaze, producers David Giler and Walter Hill were obviously craving a trifecta. After burning through multiple ideas, writers, and directors (including Renny Harlin, who walked off the project to direct Die Hard 2), Giler, Hill, and Fox decided to hire filmmaker Vincent Ward to write and direct the film. Ward's vision began with Ripley, Newt, Hicks, and Bishop crash landing on a strange, wooden planet. The planet's tenants turn out to be a monastic order of males, shunned from the rest of the galaxy and running a simple yet harmonious existence. Ripley turns out to not only have brought an alien to the planet with her in the Sulaco, but to also be infected with an alien embryo. The religious men begin to view the alien as the devil, and Ripley as its keeper.
After months of pre-production on the film, Ward angrily and suddenly shed his duties as writer and director. It turns out Fox was unhappy with the direction the film was going in - Ward's vision was apparently too "artsy" for the studio, and Giler and Hill thought the concept unsellable to a public who was expecting either a tense horror film, like the first movie, or a ballsy action movie, like it's sequel.
With only a few weeks left until the first day of shooting, Fox hired prolific music video/commercial director David Fincher, who had helmed videos for Madonna, Aerosmith, and Billy Idol. Impressed with the young director's resume (he was 28 when he got the Alien 3 job - what've you done with your life lately?), Fincher was thrust into a job that would not only determine the fate of the franchise, but also of his career.
What happened from that point on largely depends on which side you're talking to at any particular moment, and since Fincher has stayed mostly mute for the past 20 years about his experience there seems to be only one viewpoint to go by. The film "Wreckage and Rage: The Making of Alien 3", available on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray, documents the heated behind-the-scenes story, which boils down to this: genius, intense, finicky, technically precise director following in the footsteps of two other like-minded filmmakers meets stuffy, controlling, conniving, creatively bankrupt movie studio simply trying to protect their flagship franchise. There's no doubt there is plenty of blame to be tossed around on both sides (Fincher has a notorious reputation of being difficult to work with), but there's no doubt that no matter what happened, Alien 3 suffered from the shenanigans behind the camera. That being said, it's a film I feel is eons better than its critics make it out to be. It's the first film of the franchise I was exposed to (when I was very young and at a sleepover and barely paying attention to it, but having it stick in my mind anyway), and it's one of the first films I remember following behind the scenes (I videotaped a short "making of" documentary about it on HBO). In some ways prefer it to Aliens (relax - I don't think it's a better film than James Cameron's masterpiece, it just has aspects that intrigue me in ways that the previous film doesn't).
Fincher began work on the film while Giler and Hill rewrote the story. The movie begins much in the same way Ward's script does, with Ripley crash landing on a planet (Fiorina "Fury" 161) that has a population of males only. Instead of monks, though, the film has prisoners who have served their sentences but choose to stay on the planet as a custodial crew to a foundry. Newt, Hicks, and Bishop are all deceased (or deactivated indefinitely in the case of Bishop), and Ripley suspects the involvement of an alien. After befriending the colony's medical doctor, Clemens (Charles Dance), Ripley attempts to explain a series of murders to the foundry's superintendent, Andrews (Brian Glover) and is, of course, told to sit down and shut up. Soon, though, the alien strikes again, and the prisoners begin to realize they're up against one hell of a tough creature. Also as in Vincent's Wards version, Ripley is impregnated with an alien. A queen. After learning this, the film soon becomes a retread of the first film (cast members getting stalked in the dark), though with none of that film's memorable characters or any real sense of dread, but at least twenty times the gore.
The film is practically the definition of "mixed bag" as for every brilliant or mesmerizing thing about it there's something to offset the brilliance. For starters: it looks amazing. This is by far the best-looking film of the franchise. Fincher was working with grand and intriguing sets, a great production designer (Norman Reynolds), and a talented director of photography (Alex Thompson), and the golden hues and sepia tones of the film do a nice job of presenting the twilight of a beloved character's (and franchise's) life.
It's a shame, then, that the movie doesn't have more interesting character's to capture - besides Ripley, of course. Charles Dance gets a nice story with Clemens, but he's disposed of early in the picture. The only other prisoner who's even given a life is Dillon, played by Charles S. Dutton. While Dutton is surprisingly great in the role (as the groups spiritual leader he gets a few nice speeches, and NO ONE says the "F" word better than Dutton. No one.), he's not really given much to do other than be Ripley's sidekick/protector. It's also hard to root for him (at least at first) because he outright admits he rapes and murders women, and Ripley could possibly be next. In fact, it appears all of the prisoners on Fury 161 have a history of violence towards women, as displayed in conversations between them and the on-screen attempted rape of Ripley. The first rule taught in Screenwriting 101 should be this: don't populate your film with characters who could, at any moment, forcibly have sex with your main character. It doesn't bode well for creating empathy with your cast. While the film ends with a tremendously shot (seriously, I adore the look of the last 30 minutes of this film) series of chases through the foundry's corridors, the impact of the prisoners deaths is lessened by the fact that a) we don't know them and b) they're horrible people anyway (no matter how many times we hear Dillon tell us they've "found God).
Offsetting the great full-bodied physical look of the creature, though, is the film's staggeringly awful motion-control work. To get the look of the alien running full speed down darkly lit corridors, the effects team filmed a rod-puppet of the alien and then blue-screened it into the film in post-production. In these shots, the creature looks 1/5 of the size it should, with spindly arms and a disproportioned head, and the black-outline around the puppet - due to the blue-screen work - is obvious and eye-catching in the way that getting an onyx painted softball to your eye is. It's shoddy, shoddy work, that seriously hurts the film, as it's not a "one and done" shot. There are multiple scenes with this awful effect, and a low-point for the franchise.
An aspect of the film that's not a low-point, however, is the decision to kill-off Newt and Hicks at the beginning of the film. There aren't many folks who will agree with me, but I believe it's not only better for the movie, but better for the franchise and for the story of Ripley as well. Getting rid of Newt and Hicks - the only two people Ripley has become attached to - severs any emotional connection Ripley has made with anyone from any of the films. It resets her character back to zero, and reaffirms the theme that Ripley is all but cursed when it comes to this monster. The Alien Saga is Ripley's and Ripley's alone, and although the producers of Alien 3 didn't get many decisions right when it came to this film, they absolutely nailed the need for Ripley to come into the film by herself.
If you're loathe to revisit Alien 3 because you remember it as being the black sheep of the franchise, I advise you seek and find the "assembly" cut of the film which, much like a director's cut, inserts footage not seen in the theatrical cut back into the film. The difference between Alien 3's "assembly" cut and other director's cuts is that David Fincher had zero input when it came to what the producers put back into the film.
That being said, the assembly cut actually enhances the quality of the film and expands and explains many things the theatrical cut of the film left open-ended. For instance: the character of Golic (a really great Paul McGann) in the theatrical film simply disappears at one point, never to return. He's accused of murdering two of his friends, confined to the infirmary, tied up in a straightjacket, and that's that. He never comes back to the film. The assembly cut, however, inserts a sub-plot back into the film which demonstrates that Golic forms an almost Renfield/Dracula relationship with the alien and, after escaping from the infirmary, releases the alien from a room the prisoners have trapped it in - which is another sub-plot cut from the film (in the theatrical release the alien is never captured mid-film). The assembly cut also modifies significant portions of the film - in the theatrical version a dog becomes the host for the alien. In the assembly cut (and as originally intended) it's an ox. The beginning of the film is also expanded upon, showing more of Fiorina 161 and the process the colony goes through to rescue Ripley. While this expanded (by over 30 minutes) version of the film has its own set of problems and messes, it greatly improves a film I'm semi in-love with anyway.
There's no doubt that Alien 3 is the product of a troubled production and a deeply flawed film that disappointed nearly everyone who saw it upon its initial release. There is also no doubt that it has taken far more hits over the years than it deserves. It's a deep, dark film that's mostly humorless, with a mean nihilistic streak that doesn't lend itself well to casual viewing. But it's got a few bold ideas (and an even bolder soundtrack - Elliot Goldenthal's score is my favorite out of any of the Alien films), it's very beautifully shot, and contains yet another fine "Sigourney Weaver as cinema's greatest hero" performance. It's a film that deserves a revisit (to the assembly cut, stat!) and a re-analysis.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
revisit by Mark Pezzula
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser
In the early 1980's, James Cameron - disciple of Roger Corman and production designer/art director/model maker extraordinaire - already had years of experience in the film business but had not yet directed a feature film. With his now well known bravado, Cameron approached Alien producer David Giler about penning and possibly directing a sequel to the 1979 hit film. He wrote the first 90 pages of a screenplay that so impressed 20th Century Fox that the studio decided to let Cameron make his own film - The Terminator - and wait until after he completed that to not only let him finish the Alien II (what would later become Aliens) script but also direct it as well. James Cameron had not yet dubbed himself "King of the World", yet already had what seemed to be single-handed command of one of the most powerful movie studios in the business.
Fox may have taken a gamble on an unproven filmmaker, but it's easy to see why they put a lot of eggs in his basket. Cameron's Aliens screenplay took advantage of that decade's obsession with fist pumping action films and was filled with violently explosive set-pieces. First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II had already become pop-culture phenomenons, and after The Terminator blew audiences away an action heavy science fiction film was what the world was craving. Folks were ready to see Ripley back in action, this time with guns blazing and a group of hardcore Colonial Marines by her side.
I recently revisited the film for the first time in years, thanks to Fox's Blu-ray release of the Alien Anthology, and the movie not only remains one of the best action films of the 1980's (second, maybe, only to Die Hard), but also a thrilling and tense adventure. It's flaws, however, seem to be more glaring as time wears on. While some (probably most) folks consider Aliens to be superior to its predecessor, the film has too many weaknesses and is burdened by an overlong running time. The weak aspects and desperate need of at least ten minutes cut out make it markedly inferior to Ridley Scott's film.
Once again, there will be spoilers in this revisit.
Aliens begins 57 years after the ending of the fist film. Ripley is rescued from the shuttle Narcissus by a salvage ship, which takes her to a space station where she is questioned by a panel of bureaucrats from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Berated for blowing up their ship, the company simply refuses to believe Ripley's story about the alien, more concerned with the price-tag of their precious mining vessel. The company, we (and Ripley) find out, has populated the planet from the original film (planet LV-426) with terraformers and their families. Ripley is recruited by company man Carter Burke (a slimy Paul Reiser) to accompany a group of marines to the planet to track down a missing colony. She declines, but soon finds herself agreeing to the mission. She also finds, in an echo back to the first film, that the company cares nothing about the folks on LV-426, they simply want the creature.
The blood pumping through Aliens is be pure and distilled action-genre fare and, therefore, has a tone quite different from the previous film. However, Cameron wisely follows Scott's lead in pacing and structure. Aliens is a slow moving film, compared to most action pics (the first set-piece doesn't take place until over an hour into the film) and Cameron, like Scott, is concerned with setting up characters rather than jumping right into the blood and 'splosions.
Weaver, of course, gets the most attention and the meatiest role, and her dedication to the character paid off with an Academy Award nomination. The take charge, "I don't want to hear any of your crap" side of Ripley that we glimpsed in the first film is front and center in Aliens. I think Weaver's work in Alien is more statue worthy, but I guess the fact that Cameron gave Weaver a little girl (a sufficient but bored looking Carrie Hein) to take care of tugged at the heart strings of Academy members more than the subtle layering she gave Ripley in the first film.
It's too bad that the other characters Cameron sets up are broad archetypes that he seems interested in only assigning one memorable trait each to. Hudson (a wired-out Bill Paxton) is the comic-relief, always flipping out and zinging one liners. Hicks (Michael Biehn) is the strong, silent leader - the would be hero if the screenplay didn't include Lt. Ellen Ripley. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) is the butch, take charge rule-breaker. What gives these few characters flesh and blood are the performances. Cameron populates the film with memorable faces and top-notch character actors. The rest of the marines are simply alien-fodder; faces that are not very memorable (save for a few, like Drake or Apone) but don't need to be, because they exist only to up the body count. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. Aliens is, of course, an action picture, and an action picture needs some action. The rules of the genre dictate that the bodies must hit the floor.
And hit the floor they do. When Aliens finally does explode, after 60 minutes of tension building, it does so with the force of a sentry gun to the face. This is not Cameron's best film (that's The Abyss), but it certainly contains his best action sequences. He orchestrates some remarkably intense scenes which feature situations you don't normally see in other action films. The action isn't all centered around blazing guns and exploding alien heads. For instance: at the beginning of the film's first full-fledged action scene, an alien grabs a marine from behind. The marine pulls the trigger of her flamethrower, igniting a second marine in front of her. The second marine falls a few stories to his death over a railing, but not before dropping a bag of ammunition on the ground in front of him, which in turn ignites. The rest of the marines flee the burning ammo bag and then, as they say, all hell breaks loose. It's a quick scene (many of the film's action pieces come in short bursts), but it's demonstrative of Cameron's keen eye for action, and a testament to his skills as a director.
As previously mentioned, Cameron makes a wise choice by using Scott's film as a template for Aliens. Another wise choice Cameron makes is to use the same conceptual artist as Alien, Ron Cobb. This gives the film, at least the interiors of Hadley's Hope (the LV-426 colony gone missing) the same vibe and feel of the corridors of the Nostromo. While Aliens isn't as claustrophobic as the first film, the utilization of Cobb creates a nice palate to visually bridge the two films with.
While there is much to admire about Aliens and a lot that it gets right, there's a section of the film that becomes more irksome on each viewing. That section is the climactic battle between Ripley and the queen alien, which I've dubbed the "power-loader" scene. It features Ripley engaging in fisticuffs with the Mother of all Monsters while strapped into a large mechanical loader (see first pic above). While visually awesome and cool in theory, the scene shatters suspension of disbelief, as Ripley would never stand a chance against the creature in the bulky, metal mech. The scene also comes too close on the heels of the films first climax - Ripley and Newt's escape from the complex after incinerating and destroying the queen's nest. Cameron attempts to match the intensity of the escape with the power loader battle, and it becomes too much over too short a time. As an audience member, I'm already exhausted after Ripley and Newt successfully flee the clutches of the alien hive. A second, and equally ferocious, ending simply makes the film that much longer and, unfortunately, adds a disappointing coda onto a thrilling film.
Alien, for the record, had a final act structured the same way, however it works better for two reasons: 1) In the first film, Ripley had not yet had a face to face meeting with the creature when she comes across the alien in the shuttle Narcissus. In Aliens, Ripley has her cathartic way with the queen right after rescuing Newt. There's no need for a second meeting. 2) Instead of attempting to raise the film's level of intensity to where it was when Ripley was blowing up the Nostromo - with testosterone infused music and a grand set-piece - Scott wisely kept Alien's second climax a more intimate affair. Cameron's approach is to suck the air out of you and then keep sucking, whereas Scott takes your breath away and at least lets it back into your lungs in little gasps for the last ten minutes of the film.
Like my revisit to Alien, there's just too much I want to write about Aliens for one blog post to contain. I suspect that's how it will be with the remaining two films as well. Although over time the chinks in Aliens's armor become more and more apparent, it still remains one hell of an action flick, and an experience I don't mind having again and again, no matter what the format.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton
Full disclosure: Alien is my favorite movie of all time. While I have a list of more than a few films that I love to varying degrees depending on what day of the week I'm asked, Ridley Scott's 1979 horror/sci-fi classic will always lay claim to the number one spot on that list. There are many reasons why I hold the film in such high regard, many of which I will describe later here, but my automatic response when someone asks me why I feel so strongly about it is a simple one to digest: it's the only film I can watch anytime, anywhere, for no reason at all. There is literally no other film that I feel the same way about. Since the very first time I saw it back in 1994 (recorded via VHS off of cable TV), each viewing of Alien has left an indelible mark on me. It's a film I consider remarkably perfect, and one that I have no qualms declaring a semi-obsession for. I recently received the film and its 3 sequels on Blu-ray video in a collection titled the Alien Anthology. I shelled out some extra cash for the special limited edition, which comes packaged in an alien egg crafted by Sideshow Collectibles. I revisited the first film this evening, and thought this would be a good opportunity to not only voice the glowing review I've had for Alien for the past 16 years, but to promote a very special Blu-ray collection that is a must have for any fan of not only the film, but for top-quality home entertainment that takes personal viewing to a whole new level. Just a word of warning: this revisit will contain spoilers for the film, so if you haven't seen it, stop reading now.
In the mid 1970's, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, after creating the successful sci-fi spoof Dark Star (directed by John Carpenter), serendipitously met Ronald Shussett, in whom O'Bannon found a kindred spirit and a screenwriting partner who could help O'Bannon flesh out and complete a scrappy B-grade monster-movie screenplay originally intended to be directed by legendary low-budget film director Roger Corman. Like almost every film largely considered classic by film critics, scholars, and fans alike, Alien began as a different kind of beast (both literally and figuratively), and went through multiple incarnations before becoming finalized as a slick, finely paced, remarkably designed, A-level production that helped usher in a new wave of science fiction horror. The film, unsurprisingly, has been unmatched in class and quality since.
As you should know (and those reading this should know - again, this will contain spoilers), Alien tells the story of the seven person crew of the Nostromo, a commercial mining vessel on its journey back to Earth. Woken early from cryogenic sleep by the ship's computers, the crew finds, to their chagrin, that they aren't entering the last stretch of the journey home, but instead commanded to land on a nearby planet to investigate what is misunderstood to be a distress signal. The film takes its time, as the first thirty minutes runs at an agonizingly slow pace. Cut to 3 suited crew-members, a space-jockey, and a face-hugged John Hurt later, though,and one by one the crew succumbs to the deadly monster - in classic horror movie fashion - until there is only one survivor left to go mano a mano with what is cinema's greatest achievement in creature design.
Alien may be structured like a horror film, but make no mistake - its pacing is far more sophisticated than its brethren. Ridley Scott, who uses the first five minutes of the film to set a claustrophobic and isolated feel for the film that is never broken, directs the movie's first half at a leisurely but tension filled pace, with a rhythm more akin to Kubrick than to Corman. Scott's camera floats down the pipe-lined corridors of the Nostromo, as the ship's computers speak to each other and wake the crew from slumber.The only audio track is the sound of blips and bleeps - the mechanized dialogue of primitive artificial intelligence.
Scott uses this deliberately slow opening not only to orientate the audience as to the geography of the Nostromo (which comes in handy to the viewer later in the film) and to show off the film's detailed production design and effects work (the landing sequence, which seems to go on forever, is a brilliant example of this), but to also establish each character and the dynamic between them. Many other films would skip straight to a scene chock-full of exposition. Alien introduces its cast as they have a post-cryogenic sleep breakfast. It's a remarkable scene, not only because it comes towards the beginning of a genre film, but also because it sets up so much in so little time by letting the characters be living, breathing people and not just empty vessels required to move give us background or move the story forward. Parker (Yaphette Koto) and Brett's (Harry Dean Stanton) conversation about bonuses would be cut out by many directors, but Scott understands that these are concerns that real workers would have, and although the conversation seems superfluous, it instantly gives us an idea of who these two guys are and, therefore, a reason to care about them and their survival.
Structurally, Alien is also interesting because it introduces seven characters at the same time - three of which could be the hero, depending on the scene. Kane (John Hurt) is the first to wake from hyper-sleep and the first character the camera lingers on. Dallas (Tom Skerritt) seems to be the obvious hero, as he's the captain of the ship and takes an early role as leader. And yet Parker, who seems at first a bit player, rises up as an action-oriented character, actively excited about dispensing the alien. It's quite a shock watching the film for the first time and seeing all three major male characters taken out by the creature with ease. On repeat viewings, however, it's easy to see how subtly Scott sets up soft-spoken yet tough Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to be the protagonist. Her key moments present her as so by-the-book that you almost hope she meets her end in the claws of the alien. But these key moments (the scene in which she wants to quarantine Kane, her discussion about the alien with Ash (Ian Holm), her advise to Brett and Parker to "fuck off") are actually primers for her take-charge attitude and pro-active role in the final act of the film.
This leads me to another strong aspect of the film: the acting. For what started out as nothing more than a B monster movie in which, in the words of Ronald Shussett, "the monster screws the human", Alien features mighty fine thespian work. Holm especially stands out as Ash, the creepy and overly dedicated science officer who turns out to be robotic in the literal sense after spending almost the entire acting like it figuratively. Veronica Cartwright single-handedly jacks up the tension of the film as Lambert, with her strung-out and constantly-at-wits-end performance. Koto and Dean Stanton, as previously mentioned, are perfect as the sharp-tongued engineers. Tom Skerritt does a phenomenal job of making you believe he will be the one to conquer the beast, and John Hurt exits the film all too early after portraying the nicest and most level-headed member of the crew. While the cast wasn't working with Tarantino-level dialogue, they do take the relationships between their screen personas seriously, and the film is better off for it.
The stand-out performance, of course, belongs to Weaver. She would be rewarded for her work as the same character in the sequel, Aliens, with an Academy Award nomination, but her first stab at portraying Ripley is more deserving of the award. It's a wondrous debut (Alien was Weaver's first film), and, just like the film itself, layered an intricate. Ripley is my all-time favorite movie hero, and Weaver's performance in Alien is at the top of my "best of" list. She's that good.
Of course, writing about the movie Alien would be all for not if I made no mention of the alien itself. Bar none, as I already mentioned, cinema's greatest creature design, the monster referred to in the title is both beautiful and scary, lethal and sexy. Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon pushed for German painter H.R. Geiger to design the monster, and although the studio executives at Fox thought that audiences would be too frightened of Geiger's creation, the odd, pudgy little man won the job. Not only is the alien aesthetically interesting to look at, it's also genuinely frightening, both in looks and in its ability to mine the most horrific horrors out of our deepest fears.
This is done using a few techniques, not the least of which is giving the alien multiple incarnations. The face-hugger stage provokes our primitive fear of suffocation and rape. The small creature forces its seed down the throat of Kane while attached to his face, covering his nose and mouth. This leads to the iconic chest-burster scene (which, like The Exorcist's crucifix masturbation, had people fleeing from the theater). In a very deliberate move, the filmmakers have both the rape and pregnancy metaphors happen to a man (Kane), knowing full well that this would disturb the genre's predominant audience. After erupting from its human host, the alien sheds its skin and morphs from its phallic-shaped newborn body to its awesome and intimidating full-size. Scott never shoots the final stage of the alien's metamorphosis the same way twice, instead choosing to only offer glimpses of parts of it, until the very end of the film. While there are some points at which the creature has an all too obvious man in suit look, Scott's technique is nonetheless effective in letting our imagination fill in the blanks when it comes to this terrible nightmare of a creation.
As with any horror film, Alien has its fair share of set-pieces, each increasing in intensity as the film progresses. Each set-piece - five in total, not counting the very end - is staged in a way that takes advantage of the amazing set design, and gives scope to the size of the spaceship. Brett's death occurs in a very open and accessible part of the ship, while Dallas is greeted by the alien in the confined space of the air ducts. Ripley spends the last 17 minutes of the movie wordlessly running back and forth between the shuttle Narcissus and the ship's self-destruct system. It's at this point where Scott's previous time spent mapping out the geography of the Nostromo makes sense.
It is also at this point where the frenetic and break-neck pace of the final act stand in stark contrast to the languid and calm opening of the film. It's textbook filmmaking, but so effective because Scott commanded all the other aspects of the film so assuredly. Alien is that rare film in which every single person in every single department got the most out of their best efforts. It's about as flawless as a film can be, and there hasn't been anything like it since.
I could go on for several more paragraphs regarding this film - I haven't even began to scratch the surface on why I love it so much. I didn't mention Jerry Goldsmith's classy and riveting score, for instance. I could go on, but I won't. Perhaps I'll save the rest for the next time I revisit the film and fall in love with it all over again.