Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The March of Reviews!

GROSS POINTE BLANK (1997) I think I've finally figured out what this movie is. It's a comment on, and reaction to, 80's teen flicks. It's ten years later and professional killer John Cusack (who made his share of horny teenager movies) comes home for his high school reunion and a more personal reunion with jilted love Minnie Driver. It's all light escapist fare in director George Armitage's hands. But Dan Ackroyd appears to be having more fun than anyone else as a rival hitman looking to form a union for button men.

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IRON ANGELS/FIGHTING MADAM (1987) The Hong King action flick phenomenon of the 1980s was bookended by John Woo "bullet ballets" and Girls With Guns flicks like this one. Moon Lee and Elaine Lui are the Iron Angels in an absurdist mash-up of Charlie's Angels, Miami Vice and James Bond. The action never lets up in a movie packed with chases, fights, traps, escapes and rescues. And scene after scene of the girls machine-gunning, hand grenading, chopping, stabbing and bludgeoning an endless horde of henchmen who fly through the air propelled by slugs and shrapnel and kicks. And Yukari Oshima is the villain here and, boy, she just LOVES being bad! And it's all done in a frenetic (but always clear) pace that leaves you breathless. Yes, it's all very silly but it's meant to be pure escapism. And this movie, and ones like it, were a huge inspiration for me when I was writing superhero comics. I "borrowed" a gag from this movie for an early issue of Robin.

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TOY STORY 3 (2010) Is there a more consistently maintained franchise in all of cinema history? Each sequel is worthy and builds on the last film and the continuity is flawless. One senses there are complete backstories for every toy and character, a deeper, richer universe than what we can see on the screen. And that's true, the creators of Toy Story have created a complex back history for this series. Like the rest of the Toy Story movies, this entry explores some heavy themes and gets quite dark at times. For my money, the best Pixar films are usually the edgiest releases of any given year. Here, Woody and the gang have to decide between freedom and security, between individualism and servitude. The risks are real and existential. The characters face actual destruction. The suspense scenes are taut and exciting. And the humor, as always, works. Even the one-liners click as they're perfectly suited to the character speaking them. No interchangeable dialogue here. And the pop reference gags are subtle and throwaway. My oldest son and I caught the My Neighbor Totoro gag for the first time re-watching it last night. I hear good things about TOY STORY 4 and will be checking it out.

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HAMBURGER HILL (1987) A straight-up war drama about an ill-fated, hard fighting Airborne unit tasked with taking a position held by NVA troops in the summer of 1969. Director John Irvin's approach is to get right down there in the mud and show the monotony, frustration and brutality of this fight. Some really heartbreaking scenes, the most horrific of which is a "friendly fire" incident. A cast of mostly TV actors do excellent work with Steven Weber a stand-out as a redneck sergeant who's been too long in the bad bush. The first time I saw this movie was on its opening weekend. Some jerk in the audience mocked the scene pictured below and a Vietnam vet stood up to shout at the guy," You don't know! You weren't there! You weren't there!" Seated next to me was my father-in-law who is a WWII combat vet who saw lots of action in Italy. During a particularly intense and frightening combat scene that vet left the theater. My father-in-law wasn't far behind him and never returned to his seat. That's as much a testament to the level of realism this movie portrays as I can imagine.

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STUKAS (1941) I find it surprising that the Third Reich produced only 20 propaganda war films. Hollywood was churning them out at a rate of one a week after Pearl Harbor. This movie presents the story of three fighter squadrons of Stuka pilots during the invasion of France. The movie was unexpectedly bloodless. While GIs and Marines in American flicks were killing Axis hordes by the bushel, here we see Frenchmen running away but none actually dying. Perhaps because they were looking for the French to capitulate and cooperate. The movie does end with a chilling scene of Stukas flying across the Channel while the pilots sing about pounding England to dust. For the most part the movie is episodic with no clear through-line. The characters are shallow and spout lines about the glory of dying in battle for the Fatherland. What this movie really needed was some of those Jewish film-makers who fled to Warners and Paramount and MGM when Hitler came to power.

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THE SQUARE PEG (1958) Norman Wisdom in a WWII service comedy. What took them so long? Here Norman is an annoying workman employed by a building council that borders on an army base. he makes such a pest of himself that the Tommies draft him so they can send him to France to be rid of him. But Norman boards the wrong plane and winds up part of a commando mission deep behind German lines. This time, Honor Blackman (Miss Pussy Galore) plays the out-of-his-league love interest. Has a very funny scene in which a hysterically panicking Norman thinks that paratroopers going for a jump are falling out of the plane because someone left the door open.

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HOUSE OF GAMES (1987) David Mamet's directorial debut from his own screenplay. That this is a first film is plain to see. Mamet understands how film works and know just where to put the camera but apparently directed his actors as though they were on stage rather than on film. The archness of the always-difficult Mamet dialogue plays stilted on the ear. Joe Mantegna and J.T. Walsh manage it but Lindsay Crouse and the rest of the cast are left to their own devices as Mamet was probably more concerned with his actual words getting across than their place in the story. A common enough rookie move. But none of that gets in the way of the endlessly engaging story he's set up about a woman who thinks she understands herself and the world until she's drawn into the shadow world of a crew of conmen. Mamet creates his own reality here and it's irresistible once Crouse steps out of the cab across the street from the House of Games.

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THE LINEUP (1958) This one starts as a pretty straight forward cops-and-robbers, "just the facts, ma'am" brand of police drama but, with the arrival of Eli Wallach as a psychopathic mob errand boy it all amps to eleven. Don Siegel directs and, as he always does, takes full advantage of real locales as backdrops for the action. Stirling Silliphant's script tries to wax philosophical but Siegel doesn't let any of that get in the way of the action. A truly chilling climax followed by an exciting car chase along the still-uncompleted San Francisco freeway. This movie deserves to be better known.

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BREAKDOWN (1997) Tight little thriller with Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan as a couple crossing the Utah desert only to run into a situation straight out Hitchcock. Quinlan goes missing but no one will believe Kurt. He soon learns that he can trust no one as he delves deeper into a mystery set at remote diners and truck stops. Well-crafted and perfectly paced to keep the viewer engaged enough to forgive the increasingly improbable action in the third act. Plenty of twists and surprises and a satisfying conclusion. And, if the movies have taught us anything it's never to trust a character played by J.T. Walsh.

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THE NIGHT COMES FOR US (2018) Indonesian action flick. You know what you're in for. Beautifully shot and astonishingly staged. This is well-crafted action entertainment. But, when it's all over and the splattered blood is congealing it's an empty exercise. Unlike the classic Hong Kong style action flicks of the past, this movie takes place entirely in its own world. EVERYONE in the movie is an opponent. There are literally no other humans depicted in the film that are not criminals or their victims. The streets and buildings and sidewalks are empty of any humanity other than the crash dummy cast. I always find this troubling and have a hard time engaging in a story that is this far removed from any world I recognize. The story? A fabled hitman cannot kill a little girl and is determined to save her life even if it costs him everything. (SPOILER: It does.) There ARE some absolutely stunning sequences in this and it's worthwhile just for that. But, if they'd only injected some heart into the story I might want to watch it again.

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THE WRECKING CREW (2008) You've heard their music but never knew their names. Denny Tedesco made this documentary both as a history of the great 60's session men as well as a tribute to his dad, legendary guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Ever hear the Bonanza theme? The Green Acres theme? The amazing guitar work on songs by the Beach Boys or The Association? That was Tommy. Through interviews and archival video and audio we enter the world of these hardworking heroes (and heroines) who were behind hundreds and hundreds of top ten hits, commercial jingles, movie soundtracks and TV theme songs. I'm not any kind of of musician but, for some reason, I LOVE stories about the old recording studios. I could write 5000 words reviewing this movie but you really need to see it for yourself. Read the book as well. There are so many great stories and snippets and goosebumps moments as you learn the secrets of the sounds that, especially if you're a boomer, are as familiar as the sound of your mother's voice. I wish it was ten hours long.

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GIDDY-UP! Western movie reviews.

HOMBRE (1967) A "message" western with a message more relevant today than when it was made. Paul Newman is a hard man raised by Apaches and the pragmatic view of life instilled in him by the tribe is at war with the expectations of the white man's world he's re-entered. The conflict, and all the subsequent troubles in the film, come from a pair of elitist, educated do-gooders who have been grifting the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Richard Boone is in hand playing his signature badguy. I like that Boone's rotters always seems to enjoy what their doing. Not enough villains actually laugh at their victims' predicament. It's based on an Elmore Leonard novel so expect great dialogue, unexpected story turns and sudden violence.

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THE BRAVADOS (1958) Gregory Peck is on the trail of the four men who raped and murdered his wife. He catches up to them the day before they're to be hung. But, of course, they escape and Peck leads a posse into the desert after them. Solid story based on a Frank O'Rourke novel. And a good cast of bad guys including Lee Van Cleef and Henry Silva. The ending has some real twists in its tail. My only complaints are that much of it is curiously under-dramatized. There's a lot of action that happens off screen. And Joan Collins is mis-cast and just plain awful in a role as a ranch-owner. Surprising, from screenwriter Phil Yordan that he didn't make her more of a "no man is going to tell me what to do" type that Joan specialized in.

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SHALAKO (1968) Sean Connery and Bridgette Bardot in a Euro-produced western based on a Louis L'amour novel with all the problems I usually have with his novels. Connery is the all-knowing, all-wise iconic western hero set on rescuing a European hunting party that's stumbled into Apache country. Bardot is a gun-totin' countess but, beyond being BB, that's as interesting as she gets. Shot in Spain it's bloody but bloodless, if you know what I mean. The gun fights are staged in the usual "show a guy shooting then cut to another guy falling off a horse" perfunctory manner. The rest of the cast are either corrupted Euro trash or venal American opportunists. Only Sean and BB and the Apaches seem true to themselves. Woody Strode plays Apache war chief Chato and is good, as always. Don "Red" Barry is here as well essentially playing sidekick to Connery.
The main problem I have with the story is that Connery plays a know-it-all character who's always lording it over everyone with his frontier expertise. Randolph Scott played this guy in nearly every western he ever made but, wisely, always tempered the role with either humor or a tortured past. I wanted to like Shalako but often found myself saying. "What a prick this guy is."

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FROM HELL TO TEXAS (1958) I have no idea why I've missed this western up till now. Maybe it was because of the title. I've found that the more hyperbolic the title the lamer the western. "Irving, this new cowboy pitcher is a real snoozer!" "Re-title it using a mild profanity! That'll put a few butts in the seats!"
Imagine my surprise when this well-produced western lived up to its braggadocio. It's a good story plainly told and, in the hands of director Henry Hathaway, a minor classic. Every frame is a joy.
Don Murray is a saddle bum who runs into trouble with the family of rancher R.G. Armstrong. In an expertly structured tale we learn much of what we need to know without any exposition. The first third of the movie is catching up with events that occurred before the opening credits. Hell, even the credit sequence provides exposition as well as resonance to a scene later in the movie. The rest of the story plays out with rising suspense and some spectacular action set-pieces. It all comes to a terrific conclusion both from the action and dramatic standpoints. Even the love interest angle has real heat and longing while remaining innocent. Also on hand is Dennis Hopper as Armstrong's neurotic son and Chill Wills in one of his best roles. I recommend this one strongly for you western fans. It deserves to be better known.


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JOE DAKOTA (1957) The flipside to the western I reviewed previously. A Universal-International programmer the can't decide what it wants to be. It begins as a light comedy in the Destry Rides Again variety and then turns into a "town with the secret" story introducing dark aspects like an attempted rape and a lynching. But it's all under-dramatized and feathery. Someone must have realized there was a long stretch with no action so they simply wedge in a totally non-sequitur scene involving Charles McGraw and a rattlesnake. There is an an attempt to be "different" and so no one in the movie packs a gun. Why not get rid of the horses too? The always reliable Jock Mahoney is wasted here as are Lee Van Cleef and Claude Akins as a pair of frontier morons. On the plus side? It's mercifully short.

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CATLOW (1971) A British produced western shot in Spain on loads of sets familiar from other, Italian-produced, westerns. Like Shalako, this one is based on a Louis L'Amour novel but with significant changes to the characters if the not the typical L'Amour plotline. Yul Brynner stars and is having the time of his life playing against type as a rascally cad set on stealing a fortune in Confederate gold from the Mexican army. Richard Crenna acquits himself well as a US marshal who just can't bring himself to take Brynner down. The movie's notable for Leonard Nimoy as a dour bounty hunter who acts VERY un-Spock. The action's lively thanks to some expertly blocked scenes by second unit director John Glen. Violent but not bloody as the tone remains relatively light despite some desperate goings on. Falls into the "pretty darn good western" category.

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RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL (1958) Been watching a lot of westerns while I gear up to start writing one. This is a fine Audie Murphy vehicle scripted by Borden Chase. Audie's an outlaw mistaken for a marshal by trigger-happy judge Walter Matthau. But things get complicated when gang leader Henry Silva's gal pal (played by Gia Scala) shows up in town. What side the street will Audie walk down then? Well-crafted programmer in Cinemascope.

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LUCKY LUKE (2009) The very popular Belgian graphic novel series gets an Italian Western makeover in this fun, and often delirious, live action film. Somehow the filmmakers made the material much darker than the comic but kept the silliness, recherche puns, running gags, and over-the-top action from the comics in place. Jean Dujardan deserves a lot of credit for his total immersion into the role. he's cool when he needs to be and very funny when it's called for. The movie is super-stylized but that lends itself to the material. My sombrero is off to the frequent nods to the way the Luke comics are colored and the way the series' gentle sense of fun is kept in place even among the violent goings-on. The major break with the comics is that Luke can actually understand what Jolly Jumper, his horse, is saying. I'll excuse that because those are some of the funniest scenes in the movie. All I can say is that I really miss the absence of the Daltons. Perhaps they were saving them for a potential sequel. Though they were crying out to be in a post credits sequence, perhaps tunneling out of Yuma Prison for the umpteenth time.

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BEND OF THE RIVER (1952) The second western collaboration of Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann is another fine step in a cycle of excellent outdoor adventures that help set the genre's standard for the decade. In each of their five westerns together, Jimmy plays essentially the same character but, as the movies progress, his character becomes more and more edgy, more driven, capable of psychotic rage. This had to be a conscious decision. "Can you push it just a little more in this one, Jimmy?"
Their collaboration ended when Stewart insisted in making NIGHT PASSAGE, a fine western on its own but a return to the kind of amiable character Jimmy played before the war. Too bad they didn't finish out with Stewart in Mann's MAN OF THE WEST where his character, burnt out from too much loss and bloodshed, is reluctant to act when called upon. Gary Cooper is just terrific in that role but it should have gone to Stewart.
That said, BAND OF THE RIVER is a truly great western. A seamless script by Borden Chase with constant betrayals, complications, changes in fortune and rising stakes. The model of a well-paced action story with real consequences for the characters involved. A big production with a large cast and what looked like some challenging shoots. Arthur Kennedy is on hand as Stewart's fair weather friend and this is one of the rare instances where I found Rock Hudson believable in an action role. Of course, look who was setting the bar for him. Julie Adams, Jay C, Flippen, Harry Morgan and Royal Dano round out a great cast.


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GOIN' SOUTH (1978) Jack Nicholson stars in and directs this sly western comedy that would be the movie debut of both Mary Steenburgen and John Belushi. Jack is a ne'er do well outlaw who has to choose between marriage and the gallows and both choices stand an even chance of killing him. Deals with themes and situations you just can't work into a movie these days. A great cast has a lot of fun in their roles including Christopher Lloyd, Veronica Cartwright and Tracy Walters. Nicholson first showed his real acting chops in low budget westerns in the 60s and here he shows that he still knows how to work the genre and has a real affection for it.

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PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973) Still on a western jag, I watched Peckinpah's self-indulgent, repetitive and near-plotless epic. And I still love it just as such as when I first saw it. For hardcore western fans only. Features a who's who of character actors all looking as hard and used up as the characters they're playing. Tonight was the inferior 1988 restoration (NOW WITH MORE WHORES!). I'll watch the far tighter 2005 version tomorrow night.

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THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965) Every time I watch this movie my wife tries to work out the math of how these four could be brothers and then leaves the room never to return. A fine action western that's as basic as basic can be but shot with real verve and streak of meanness by Henry Hathaway. Most of the first half is set-up and slow burn sprinkled with action and a few suspense moments. But once it gets moving it's action for much the rest of the run. James Gregory is on hand as a slimy weasel who sets everything in motion. Dennis Hopper is once again the son who can never please his pappy. George Kennedy has the time of his life as a amoral hired gunman and gets the film's best line. "You know that fella that didn't get off the train, the one we both ain't scared of? Well, he's here."
Iconic score by Elmer Bernstein.
The Duke was two months from having a lung and two ribs removed when he started filming this. There's a scene or two where he looks to have slowed down a mite but, for the most part, he acquits himself well. One tough hombre in real life.


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Thursday, July 4, 2019

THE PREDICTABLES

There's a discernible trend in all the negative reviews I get for my novels on Amazon. These readers are aggravated that my characters often make mistakes that only worsen the challenges they face. They also seem to be dismayed that I often write unlikable characters who make poor life choices. No, I'm all for escapist fiction but I'm not about to set all my stories in an alternate universe where there's no such thing as misfortune, bad luck and random chance. And I've never cared for perfect characters who never take a misstep and always have all the answers. 





Wednesday, July 3, 2019

New Reviews with images too!

HOMBRE (1967) A "message" western with a message more relevant today than when it was made. Paul Newman is a hard man raised by Apaches and the pragmatic view of life instilled in him by the tribe is at war with the expectations of the white man's world he's re-entered. The conflict, and all the subsequent troubles in the film, come from a pair of elitist, educated do-gooders who have been grifting the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Richard Boone is in hand playing his signature badguy. I like that Boone's rotters always seems to enjoy what their doing. Not enough villains actually laugh at their victims' predicament. It's based on an Elmore Leonard novel so expect great dialogue, unexpected story turns and sudden violence.

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THE BIG CAPER (1957) Rory Calhoun trades in his Colt .44 for a .38 snubnose in this programmer about a sweet little heist that goes all wrong when love comes to town. He's got a flawless plan to take a million bucks in cash from a podunk California bank. But the gang he's with is made up of sadists, psychos and sickies. Tight, taut with loads of twists and turns and James Gregory (Barney Miller's Inspector Lugar) as a hood with more than one kink in his closet.

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THE BIG BOUNCE (2004) This movie’s like a beach vacation; easy, breezy, with nothing on its mind but fun. Once-over-lightly adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel with the action moved to Hawaii. Fun cast combination led by Owen Wilson and Sara Porter who have a give-and-take chemistry that will keep you guessing even as you’re engaged. Director George Armitage’s particular talents are well suited to the material in a perfectly structured caper comedy that never takes itself seriously and never goes where you think it’s going.











MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985) Kind of late in the game for this brand of grindhouse exploitation actioner. Also, a very tame entry in the cannibal sub-genre that Italian moviegoers were so enamored of through the 70’s. Here the genre gets an Indiana Jones makeover with a pair of arrogant Americans vying for leadership of a pack of plane crash survivors looking to escape a lost valley filled with man-eaters of every variety. Nudity, violence and cruelty abound but mostly it’s running through jungles and wading through swamps. Don’t expect any dinosaurs either. Not even one. And the cast either chews the scenery or walks around looking for their spot. The most emotion that the attractive lead actress can work up looks like she’s worried her suitcase won’t be on the baggage carousel. This is even while they’re clearly going to be horribly tortured then eaten by their captors.


Jacquou le croquant (2007) The kind of epic tale of injustice and revenge that the French do so well. From Dumas to Hugo, they own this genre. Young Jacquou becomes an orphan early on in post-Waterloo France. His father shot escaping from prison, his mother dying from grief. He’s raised by the local priest with one goal in mind, revenge against Count Nansac!  There’re complications along the way like star-crossed love, betrayals and a very suspenseful escape from an oubliette. (look it up, it’s horrifying). A well-mounted period production rich in detail with some gorgeous landscape. The cast is solid and overcomes even the sillier aspects of the story. There’s a dance-off that sets off the second act action but it’s not as dumb as it sounds, trust me. Old school, bodice-ripping entertainment in which a few buckles are swashed.


Sunday, June 30, 2019

THE ALIEN FRANCHISE



ALIEN

I saw the original Alien on its opening weekend in 1979. People actually ran out of the theater during the chest-burster scene. A sign of how jaded moviegoers have become since, I can’t imagine that happening today.


As a sci-fi fan geek, I had been told to expect something visceral and disturbing in the movie so was somewhat prepared for what happened. It is an unforgettable scene.

What Ridley Scott did here was take the sci-fi horror story to a new level. While it’s all still just essentially a monster movie, a haunted house in space story, Scott dropped all the melodrama and took a more organic, naturalistic approach with his actors. That, for me, is the key that makes Alien work the way it does.


Like the classic Thing From Another World, Scott takes time let us get to know the crew of the Nostromo and, like the Howard Hawks film, we watch as they engage in banter and ball-busting and griping in the sort of easy exchange and  patois that people adopt when they share a task or are in each others company for a prolonged period. He used the camera in such a way that were distanced from the action at first, very much voyeurs to their world. He’s aided in this by as fine an ensemble of character actors as you’ll find in any movie of this period as well as Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role as Ripley.


Unlike in The Thing, not much about the alien is revealed. We learn about its gestation cycle along with the crew but know nothing more than what they, and we, can see. Like earthbound insects, it has a metamorphosis. But is the eight-foot-tall humanoid monster the end of this cycle or is there more? Its origins are a mystery. The only clear motivation it seems to have is to kill every living thing it meets. Like all great science fiction, this movie asks more questions than it answers.


The look of the film is also spectacular. Jean “Moebius” Giraud worked on set and costume design and the movie, overall, derives much of its look from the work of Belgian and French comic artists. As Star Wars borrowed heavily from the look of Jean Claude Mezieres’ Valerian, this film was inspired by the organic, lived-in look of SF graphic novel works of Mezieres, Giraud, Druilliet and Bilal and others.


The screenwriters and Scott do not look away from the meaner aspects of the story they’ve created. And that is at the core of the entire Alien franchise. Meanness. This is a horror series that is unrelentingly brutal and unforgiving to its characters.  Throughout the entire film cycle we see characters established only to be killed in the most awful ways imaginable and often unexpectedly.


This cynical angle on man’s place in the universe, that we’re all only meat for the taking or hosts for extraterrestrial offspring, is at the center of what makes these movies (at their best) click. It sets up the notion that no one is safe. That anything can happen to anyone at anytime and very often does.

Another unique aspect that is very present in the first film but not much as the series continues is the pure, danged cussedness of the human race. Sure, Ripley is scared and we’re scared for her. But she’s also pissed off and we feel that too. She has this mindless, eyeless thing that’s murdered her crewmates chasing her around and she’s been effed over by her own employer in the shape of the ultimate company man, the android Ash. She’s tired of being effed with and someone has to pay fro that. First the alien and then her bosses back on Earth.

For me, that excuses the one departure from the “anything to survive” theme of this movie. I’m talking about Ripley’s foolhardy efforts to save Jones, the ship’s cat. I can excuse it because, hell, I want her to save the cat. But, more than that, Jones becomes a symbol of Ripley’s determination not only to survive but to triumph. She’s NOT going to let that mean old beasty have  the only other living earthling remaining on the Nostromo.


In the end, the movie ends on a satisfying note but also leaves us uneasy about Ripley’s fate. Will she be found? And how much time will pass? And what will the world be like when she awakens?
 

Which brings us to.........

ALIENS


This won’t be popular with some of you. Most of you even.

I have to confess that I loved his movie when it came out. It was a pure adrenalin rush. And, on the surface, what’s not to like? The story is a sturdy one. A distant colony has not been heard from in a while. The last reports mentioned a dangerous xenomorph species. A military unit is dispatched to investigate and, if needed, eradicate the threat. They will be taking along Ellen Ripley who is the only survivor to have encountered this species.

Gung ho monster-killing action by the guy who made The Terminator. Yay. 


And the movie does deliver on its original premise. Loads of action between space marines and aliens. The discovery of the beginning of the alien birth cycle, a cyclopean queen who is murderous in her wrath when her children are threatened. It’s even cool that it all ends in a Battle of Moms with Ripley defending the helpless waif Newt from the killer alien queen.

But…the movie does not bear up well over time. Unlike the first movie in the series which looks timeless, this movie is firmly stuck in the 80s. Paul Reiser looks so in the period this movie was made in he looks like he got an unlimited giftcard to L.L. Bean. He even acts 80s.


And the dialogue. James Cameron can write the most painful, on-the-money dialogue ever written. And here he shoots the wad. Everyone talks in hyperbole or jargon without a trace of irony. This is lightyears away from the organic, naturalistic conversations of the first film that made the characters so human and relatable. Here the characters have par phrases and ready responses instead of conversations, ball-busting by rote. Except they don’t seem tired of it. Their bon mots are delivered as if they still think they’re clever. Sigourney’s eye-rolling at some of these exchanges probably wasn’t scripted.

This is especially, excruciatingly true of all the military characters. James Cameron either has a “special loathing” for the military (to quite Bill Clinton) or simply doesn’t know how to write them.  These are supposed to be experienced soldiers, specialists in their own way. Yet they come off as preening morons, strutting around like peacocks and spouting one “you talkin’ to me” cliché after another. I think Cameron is writing them as jocks. He must have gotten shut up on a locker or pantsed by his football team back in junior high and is now getting back at them. And this isn’t the only instance in his writing. In his screenplay for Rambo 2 he portrays everyone but Rambo and Troutman as uber-macho gym rats. Same for Avatar, soldiers as braggadocios murderers.  


Not only are the Marines shown as loudmouth dullards, they’re not even good at their jobs. Even Hicks, the only “good” and principled one in the unit is portrayed as kind of slow on the uptake and lacking in initiative or drive. He needs Ripley to tell him what to do. 

And, while their shared dialogue reveals that they have been on “bug hunts” before they seem entirely unprepared for what comes next. One can assume that they went on military missions against alien life forms perhaps not as lethal as the critters of this franchise. But wouldn’t that have them taking even more precautions as they begin to realize that this new species is different than any they faced before? Wouldn’t their preconceived notions of what to expect evaporate in the light of the complete annihilation of the colony’s population and the presence of a massive, maze-like hive under construction at the heart of the complex? It’s obvious even from the first encounter that these “bugs” are no Zanti misfits. And yet these vaunted space marines troop into an ambush bunched up like the Bowery Boys.


And what’s with the Bishop character? Why should Ripley trust him after almost being murdered by one of his kind in the previous film? His reasoning that the previous models were “twitchy” excuses nothing. It all comes off as a ham-handed allegory to racial prejudice. “Don’t judge all us robots by one homicidal machine man.” Never mind that Bishop works for, and was programmed by, the same company that ordered Ash to make sure everyone on the Nostromo died. What is this thing Cameron has about killer androids redeeming themselves? He’d revisit this theme in Terminator 2.


As we’ll see in a future review, he might not be the only filmmaker working out some personal issues through this franchise.


More than anything else, this sequel takes us away from the meanest aspect of what defines this series; the inescapable chaos of the natural universe. The sheer random brutality of the universe. Aliens works more like a standard horror or action film in which all the “right” people survive. By this standard, Captain Dallas should have lived to the end of the first film as he was undeniably the most courageous of the Nostromo’s crew. Here, we see all the braggarts, cowards, connivers, fools and assholes rendered victims of the beasties while the virtuous heroes, Ripley, Newt and Hicks survive. The only regrettable casualty is Bishop who ends his existence while valiantly trying to assist Ripley in her battle with the queen mama. But, as I stated before, there’s no reason a future programming update wouldn’t have had him shoving the survivors’ hyper-sleep chambers out an airlock.



ALIEN 3

I’m going to lose even more friends over this one, but I see Alien 3 as the only true sequel to Ridley Scott’s first film. In tone if nothing else.


While Cameron went full bore on a comic book approach, here David Fincher embraces a more somber mood piece much like the first film. Here there’s a return to the “nature’s a bitch” theme. Nothing will save you from this film’s critter. The deserving die alongside the sinners. It’s also the end of Ellen Ripley’s arc. This Ripley anyway. And the conclusion of the film is fitting and poignant despite being downbeat.

I like the logical progression of the alien metamorphosis as well as this time the monster is created out of a dog rather than a human. The end result is pure predator, a creature that relies on speed rather than size. There’s less of the wandering in a haunted house feel and far more of a chase going on.


The setting of a prison planet that’s become a sort of twisted monastery is an interesting choice. Ripley is as much an alien here as the creature she brought along with her. They are both, in their own way, in a fight to survive in this hostile environment.


I know this entry doesn’t have a lot of fans but I will defend it without reservation. It has a number of amazing sequences, a crushing feeling of dread throughout and one of the most iconic images of the entire franchise; Ripley’s face-to-face confrontation with an alien warrior.


Now let’s move on to the entry that everyone loves to hate.

ALIEN RESURRECTION 


You know, Alien Resurrection has a lot going for it right up until the third act.


Of all of them, this one comes closest to the French graphic album feel that played such a part in the first film. And there’s a lot of very cool scenes.

First up, I’m a sucker for the “you don’t know who you’re messing with” kind of story. And the clone of Ellen Ripley is all that. Sigourney’s slicked back look, newly acquired gym muscle and general air of “I can kill everyone on in this room’ badassery makes for a lot of fun encounters. Plus, this is the first time the franchise takes advantage of her real-life six-foot height. She really is imposing especially against the rest of the not-so-tall cast.


The crew of space vagabonds who show up and become Ripley 2.0’s allies is well cast with Ron Perlman at his most Neanderthal and the criminally underused Michael Wincott as the space pirate skipper. 


Winona Ryder is along in the thankless role of the android. She’s all emo all the time and the only character in the movie who seems to care for anyone beyond herself. Get it? A robot is more human than the humans! You got that right? Just making sure. Ryder seems genuinely scared of Weaver but I’m going to put that down to acting skills.


And we have Brad Dourif and Dan Hedaya here in a race to see who can chew more scenery. It’s a wonder there weren’t bite marks everywhere.


Well it’s all run and shoot and fight and die and a fine sci-fi monster movie until we get to whatever the hell that hybrid human/alien thing was supposed to be. There’s no way the cast and crew didn’t have trouble keeping a straight face at the idiotic end design of this creature. It’s all pink and rubbery and has a nose! A little, nubby, tilted nose. Oh, and big sad eyes. It’s possibly the dumbest monster design ever and I’m including Philippine kaiju and Roger Corman movies. What the hell were they thinking? There were probably thousands of concept drawing done for this and they picked the worst possible one.

And the design was key to make the final scenes of the movie work. I mean, the remaining human portion of Ripley’s mind is supposed to bond with this wriggly beastie like a mother to a child. But who could become attached to this thing? I could understand if it was scary looking. But it looked so silly! If there was an Academy Award for not bursting out laughing it has to go to Sigourney for all those close-up shots she shared with the overgrown gummi baby.


As I promised, this movie features a recurring theme from its screenwriter.

The scene where Ripley discovers the room full of aborted clones is remarkably similar to another reveal scene in another Joss Whedon scripted movie.
 

Remember when Buzz Lightyear discovers that he’s a toy and not a terrible unique one at that? Same scene right?




Well, anyway, that’s my take on the Alien franchise. I might do a future entry dealing with the prequels, crossovers and prequel crossovers. But that would mean watching Prometheus again and I’m not sure that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.



                       GAME OVER, MAN!