Archive for January, 2014

Alien 3 (1992)

Director: David Fincher

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Lance Henriksen

Mine enemy, thy name is “Alien 3.” Or is it supposed to be “Alien Cubed”? The strangely stylized “3” displayed on all the posters and video boxes perfectly symbolizes how this once proud science-fiction/horror franchise tried to make a move into new territory and wound up taking a detour into utter stupidity. The series was just fine being left off at the end of “Aliens” with our heroes escaping LV-426 with their lives and a bright future ahead of them. But 20th Century Fox decided in their infinite wisdom that there was still money to be milked from this cash cow. For more than two decades, “Alien 3” has ranked as the most disappointing movie I’ve ever seen. But I’m serious when I say that I believe it was not made by amateurs. It takes real talent for a filmmaker to piss off their audience before the movie is five minutes old. That’s actually the most maddening thing about it: the tools for a great sequel were there, but they were left to rust in the proverbial rain.

For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, there was a stowaway Alien onboard our intrepid heroes’ spaceship from the previous movie (presumed to have been left there by the Alien Queen they encountered and defeated). It causes a fire onboard, and the ship crashlands on the prison planet Fiorina 161, populated by a bunch of rapists and murders, none of which are female, most of which speak with one form of an English accent or another, and all of which have not had sex in a very long time. Out of the three humans and one android who survived the events of “Aliens,” only Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) makes it out of the crash. Ripley is only able to mourn her friends for a short while, as it looks like there might be a new Alien on the loose, one which moves quite differently from those she has seen before. Worse still, there are no weapons on this planet, so to survive, they have to improvise. All the while, Ripley isn’t feeling so great, which she passes off as being groggy from cryosleep.

If the producers were looking to piss off the fans of “Aliens,” it’s a fair bet to say they succeeded. I don’t know how they can justify killing off fan favorites like Hicks and (especially) Newt. Particularly obscene and revolting is the subsequent autopsy on the little girl (which was reportedly more graphic before cuts were made, no pun intended). James Cameron, director of “Aliens,” and actor Michael Biehn were just as upset as fans were. Biehn went as far as to request and receive almost as much money for the use of his likeness in this movie as he got for starring in “Aliens.” Maybe it could have been possible to overlook the deaths of Hicks and Newt if it weren’t for the fact that these beloved characters are replaced with mostly forgettable and, in some cases, not terribly likeable characters. The few that are memorable don’t last as long as they should.

One person whom I cannot and will not blame for this mess of a movie is David Fincher. Not the least bit responsible for the contents of the screenplay, he is not to blame for the haphazard writing. Being a first-time director, he was also taken advantage of by the studio heads, who made several changes to the film behind his back. Rightly so, Fincher has disowned “Alien 3,” and thankfully his involvement didn’t sabotage his career, which has included “Se7en,” “Fight Club” and the 2011 American remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”… all fantastic movies.

I hate movies with false advertisement, be it in the promotional material or in the movie’s title itself. In the case of “Alien 3,” the teaser trailer seemed to promise a sequel taking place on Earth. Given how “Aliens” had raised the stakes, this seemed like the next logical step. Alas, it was not to be, and the dreary, dark sets of Fiorina 161 were no substitute. Were one to listen to Elliot Goldenthal’s soundtrack without knowing about the film it is attached to, it might seem like the epic score of an equally epic feature. That it does not belong to a better film is a tragedy.

I originaly saw “Alien 3” in the theater back in the summer of 1992. Until that time, in my naivety, I thought it was impossible not to have a good time at the movies. Even at their darkest, the previous two films are exciting from beginning to end. Apart from the most uproarious utterance of my favorite four-letter word, “Alien 3” had little to offer me other than doom and gloom. I waited almost 22 years before seeing it again, hoping that as an adult I might be able to look at it differently. Little has changed, apart from being slightly more familiar with some of the actors who, within the film, are still difficult to distinguish due to their shaven heads. It is certain that I have since seen dozens of movies that are far worse in every conceivable way, but there are still none which have disappointed me more than “Alien 3” …none which cause me greater annoyance through their very existence.

The Man with Two Brains (1983)

Director: Carl Reiner

Starring: Steve Martin, Kathleen Turner, David Warner, Sissy Spacek

Comedy is a tricky art form. It is hard to gauge what the audience will find funny, and what will cause them to simply fold their arms and roll their eyes. Topical humor also runs into problems when time marches on and causes the subject matter to become outdated. You also have to know what kind of audience you are trying to reach. Generally, with a movie, you want to reach as wide an audience as possible, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Once again, the humor runs the risk of dating itself, with the youth in the crowd scratching their heads when they are meant to be holding their sides in laughter. Yet, as hit and miss as it can be, comedy isn’t brain surgery.

Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin)… yes, the pronunciation of his bizzare last name is one of the film’s running gags… is a brain surgeon who has come up with a unique and rather cartoonish way of performing the delicate procedure: removing and replacing the top of the skull via a “screw-top” method. This bypasses the need to shave the patient’s head. His newest patient, Dolores Benedict, also happens to be the woman he ran over with his car. Before long, they marry. What Michael doesn’t know, but he’ll soon discover, is that Dolores is a gold digger who’ll get in bed with just about every man except her husband. Trying his best to win his new wife’s affection, Michael takes Dolores on a honeymoon to Vienna, where he will also be attending a conference demonstrating his brain surgery technique. There, he meets Dr. Necessiter (David Warner), whose own work has extended into transplanting a brain into a recently deceased human body. He hasn’t been successful as of yet, but it seems he’s had many opportunities to test his theories, as there’s a killer on the loose. All of the brains that Dr. Necessiter has in his lab are said to be still alive even though they are disembodied, and one in particular proves it when she (voice of Sissy Spacek) establishes telepathic communication with Michael.

With a title that sounds like it comes from an old 1950’s sci-fi movie, or a more recent B-movie that would almost certainly star Bruce Campbell, this 1983 comedy has not aged particularly well. Much of the jokes are far too obvious to be funny, and the plot is equally easy to decipher. The outcome is pre-determined almost from the moment we are introduced to the movie’s main characters. I’m not even sure what audience “The Man with Two Brains” is meant for. Was director Carl Reiner looking to entertain those of his own generation, or was everyone supposed to “get it”? Some things about the movie do work very well. For instance, I love Dr. Necessiter’s laboratory, merely a condo made to look like part of an old castle with wallpaper and plywood. Sissy Spacek is terrific as the telepathic voice of the brain. The revelation of the Window Cleaner Killer’s identity is completely out of the blue, but deserves at least a chuckle provided that you have some familiarity with the person. The ending, although mostly predictable, does offer one moment of unintentional humor due to its almost prescient nature concerning the future status of one of the actors.

The movies of Steve Martin are something I find I’m very particular about. When he’s playing the straight man to another actor’s antics, it really clicks for me, as in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” When he’s the one acting like a goofball, I feel like he’s trying too hard. That’s why I’m one of the few people on planet Earth for whom “The Jerk” isn’t a complete laugh riot. “The Man with Two Brains” meets it somewhere in the middle. He plays his role here mostly straight, sometimes straying off into goofiness (at one point, becoming a human pinball). It’s actually Kathleen Turner who gets the most laughs as his adulterous, murderous bride. “The Man with Two Brains” isn’t bad… it’s just written that way.

Aliens (1986)

Director: James Cameron

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope

Sequels are burdened with the seemingly impossible task of living up to their predecessor(s). Most fail because they don’t offer the audience anything new, choosing simply to redo everything the previous film(s) did. This has the effect of boring the audience, who can set their watches by each of the main plot points. The best kind of sequel also maintains a certain continuity, while at the same time establishing itself as a different beast entirely. These stories take what worked before, introduce interesting new characters, raise the stakes, and keep you guessing right up until the end. Most importantly, they make sure the audience is entertained throughout. Among the greatest of sequels stand “The Godfather Part II,” The Empire Strikes Back,” “Bride of Frankenstein” …and “Aliens.”

Fifty-seven years have passed since the events of “Alien,” where Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the only survivor of the commercial freighter Nostromo. That her six crew members died is of no concern to her employers, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. They’re much more concerned about the money lost by Ripley’s decision to set the Nostromo to auto-destruct. They don’t even bat an eyelash when she brings up the planet where the Alien was originally found, LV-426, because there’s been a terraforming colony established there for sometime that houses seventy families. Yeah, that’s not gonna end well. Sure enough, contact with the colony is lost. Company official Burke (Paul Reiser) and a team of Marines are going to the planet and they need Ripley’s help, given her unique experience with the creatures responsible. The only survivor they find there is a seven year old girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), whose parents investigated the same derelict ship the Nostromo’s crew found, and the results were a hundred times more deadly.  The Marines are in over their heads. Being loaded with firepower the Nostromo crew could only dream about doesn’t seem to make much difference. With their own numbers rapidly decreasing, the only recourse left is to get off the planet ASAP.

Sigourney Weaver’s work here surprisingly earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. I don’t mean to suggest that she didn’t do a great job, or that Ellen Ripley (whose first name we didn’t know until this sequel) doesn’t grow as a character. It’s just rare for a film like “Aliens” to get any form of praise other than for technical achievements. Although this is clearly Ripley’s story, I find that the best characters in “Aliens” are found among the Marines. Lance Henriksen (who plays the android Bishop), as several of my friends are fond of saying, pretty much automatically makes any movie better all by himself. But, most specifically, I am thinking of Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein.

As Hudson, Bill Paxton is the movie’s comic relief character. He’s the one Marine who is quickest to lose his cool, the one who would be most likely to choose flight before fight in order to save his own hide (except when it matters most), and the one who provides most of the movie’s highly quotable dialogue. Jenette Goldstein made her film debut with “Aliens.” She disappears so completely into the role of tough girl Vasquez that, if you were unaware of the actor’s subsequent filmography (or her family background), you might not guess that she isn’t of Latin descent. Even if you are her superior officer, Vasquez is someone who you do not want to piss off.

“Aliens” also features my favorite composer, James Horner. Still in the early years of his career, Horner’s score for “Aliens” is perhaps his most iconic. For the next ten to fifteen years, movie trailers were still using the track “Bishop’s Countdown.” The one I remember best is the trailer for “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Certain bits of the soundtrack can also be heard during the climax of “Die Hard.”

The legacy of “Aliens” reaches far beyond its status as one of the greatest sequels ever filmed. As a movie that includes elements of the horror, science fiction and action genres, it defies classification. Hudson could be said to be the template for Jayne Cobb, a character from writer/director Joss Whedon’s TV series “Firefly.” “Aliens” may also be responsible for the action shoot-’em-up videogame genre, games which feature an increasing amount of danger and difficulty as the player progresses from level to level. Director James Cameron, famous for shamelessly using the basics of an existing story to spin his own yarn, would do it to himself in five years time. “Aliens” is very much a trial run for “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (itself a fantastic sequel which many find superior). The two share in common the themes of family (Ripley becoming a surrogate mother after finding out she’s missed her own daughter’s entire adult life), and of the female lead’s need for closure, to put the monster to bed at last. We share in both the terror and the catharsis, making “Aliens” both an exciting and satisfying experience. It also works as a great closing chapter, but it would not be the last time that the Aliens graced the cinema with their presence. The almighty dollar makes studio heads do crazy things…

The Island (2005)

Director: Michael Bay

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou, Sean Bean, Michael Clarke Duncan, Steve Buscemi

The advances in modern medicine never cease to amaze. Many diseases and birth defects once regarded as death sentences are now perfectly treatable, or are otherwise a distant memory. Were it not for certain technical achievements, I would not be here today to type these words. Transplant surgery is one of the more miraculous ideas we’ve come up with to extend life. You sign a donor card and, upon your death, your liver, heart, kidneys, etc. can legally be used to save the life of another whose corresponding organs are failing them. Still, even with this great invention of science, there is the shameful waiting list. People have died believing they would get the transplant they need, only to be put on hold or passed over completely for various reasons. Sometimes they die because the replacement organs don’t quite agree with their new host bodies. It’s not a perfect system, but it does have more positives than past methods of deciding between who lives and dies.

Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) live in a world where no one gets sick, physical contact is constantly monitored, everyone eats the same boring food and wears the same white clothing. It would be enough to drive you mad, if it wasn’t the only world you’ve ever known and have been told it’s the only part of the world still habitable. What isn’t common knowledge, but the curious Lincoln Six Echo stumbles upon, is that he along with everyone he has ever known is a clone of a real person, and that winning the lottery doesn’t actually result in a highly sought after trip to a place called The Island. What it means is that the clone’s human template requires an organ transplant, the sole reason for their clone’s existence. Armed with this information, Lincoln Six Echo breaks free of his prison with Jordan Two Delta in tow. That’s when the real action begins as the people running the complex give chase, hoping to silence the two clones before they inform the public what’s really going on behind closed doors.

From the same writing team responsible for the “Transformers” films and J.J. Abrams’ two “Star Trek” movies, “The Island” is an uncharacteristically good film from director Michael Bay. Long, but not too long, it isn’t troubled by pacing problems that were only the beginning for the woes of films like “Armageddon” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Like “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” it plays like a movie made by fans for fans. “The Island” has many influences, the most obvious comparison being “Logan’s Run” (1976). Both Ewan McGregor and Michael York play characters who live in dystopian societies in blissful ignorance of the truth, escape into the real world once their eyes have been opened, and then return to set things right. One area where the two movies differ is in the reason for the “Carrousel”/”Lottery.” In “The Island,” it’s all for the perpetuity of the population. In “Logan’s Run,” it was a means of population control. Another comparable film is “Blade Runner,” only this time the Replicants being hunted down are depicted as the heroes.

In truth, there is only one reason that initially inspired me to seek out “The Island,” and that is Scarlett Johansson. On top of being a good actress, she’s also a very beautiful lady. This is accentuated by expert camera angles and through Michael Bay’s yellow-orange color scheme in which all his movies seem to be filmed, as though the sun were always beaming down upon the camera. These are the same camera tricks that helped Megan Fox rise to stardom in the first two “Transformers” movies. Definitely more pleasing to the eye than J.J. Abrams’ obsession with lens flares.

For now, the only form of human cloning that exists today is the natural kind, that which results in people being born with an identical twin. Perhaps this is a good thing. We have enough dispute in the United States over the concept of universal health care without adding the moral dilemma of cloning into the mix. I don’t even want to think about the outrage that would result if laws were passed making it perfectly okay for someone to clone themselves only to treat the new lifeform as their own personal organ bank. What would one say if they came face to face with their own clone? Sorry I’m living a life of luxury and decadence while you’re stuck in some shithole with no hopes, dreams or future? This is part of what makes science-fiction so fascinating. We can consider scenarios that could resemble our own future, yet seem so impossibly outrageous that we pray we never live to see the day when such a world becomes reality.

House at the End of the Street (2012)

Director: Mark Tonderai

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Max Thieriot, Gil Bellows, Elisabeth Shue

TV’s “Mythbusters” proved with one fecal-themed experiment that you actually can polish a turd. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman achieved this using a Japanese technique called “dorodango.” The end result of this process, which requires careful attention and patience, is a perfectly round ball of excrement with a glossy finish. It is even at this point that one must handle the spherical scat with care, as it is still quite fragile. What must never be lost in all of this is that, no matter how nice it may look in its completed form, you’re still dealing with an orb of poop.

Elissa Cassidy (Jennifer Lawrence) and her mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) move to a small town, into the house right next door to the site of a grisly murder that took place four years earlier, in which a disturbed young woman killed both her mother and father. That house is now occupied by Ryan Jacobson (Max Thieriot), the son. After killing their parents, Ryan’s sister Carrie Anne is said to have fled into the woods and disappeared. So the legend goes. Whatever the case, the townspeople wish that the house had been demolished because its continued existence combined with its history devalues their property as well. Elissa, whom her mother accuses of always trying to fix broken people, develops a close relationship to Ryan, even as he exhibits classic warning signs that would tell anyone thinking rationally that there’s something more than just odd about this guy.

In an era where the horror genre has become like a skipping record player caught in an endless loop of the same line or phrase of a song, movies that aren’t remakes cashing in on the titles of classics are hard to find. To its credit, “House at the End of the Street” is one that merely recalls the stories from a more creative period. If you haven’t seen “Psycho,” “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane,” “Sleepaway Camp,” or any one of a hundred horror movies which are centered around a character harboring a deep and dark secret, there remains a chance that you might find some of the plot twists in “House at the End of the Street” catching you off your guard. Those coming in already well-versed won’t even find the simplicity of the plot all that shocking, nor the requisite stupidity/clumsiness of its characters. Does the “final girl” always have to trip and fall down when running from the villain? Well, yes, because that’s part of the formula.

That “House at the End of the Street” had to wait for two years after filming was completed for it to be released to the general public is hardly new territory for this genre. Casting a multi-time Oscar nominee in the lead role is also not completely unheard of, although this usually happens either before or after the pinnacle of the actor’s success. Jodie Foster was more than a decade away from her two Oscar wins and was just about to land her first nomination for 1976’s “Taxi Driver” when she starred in “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” (also released in 1976). Jennifer Lawrence has received two nominations, one for “Winter’s Bone” (2010), which was released mere months before filming on “House at the End of the Street” began, and the other for “Silver Linings Playbook” (for which she won) released after “House at the End of the Street.” Her role in 2013’s “American Hustle” has already won her Golden Globe honors and all but assures her of a third Oscar nod… and she’s still in her early 20’s.

Like Foster, Jennifer Lawrence can make a good film great, help turn an already great film into an instant classic, and her presence can also make a bad or otherwise unremarkable film worth saying you’ve seen it once. “House at the End of the Street” is that otherwise bad movie made slightly better by Lawrence’s natural acting ability. Even as everyone else in the movie is either proving that they should seek another line of work, or seem as though they are searching for the nearest “EXIT” sign, Jennifer Lawrence is still putting forth a considerable effort, carrying “House at the End of the Street” on her shoulders. I own a copy for that reason, and that reason alone.

8:46 (2011)

Posted: January 14, 2014 in Movie Review
Tags: , , ,

8.46 (2011)

Director: Jennifer Gargano

Starring: Shelly Shenoy, Mike DiGiacinto, Elizabeth Eggers, Laurie Dawn, Buzz Roddy

Generally speaking, films centered around the subject of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are not the sort of thing I care to seek out. It’s not that I believe they won’t tell honest stories, nor that I think I can’t handle the images. Simply, it is because I don’t need a movie to tell me how to feel about what happened. I don’t need to be reminded of where I was when the news reports first came in. At work, and nowhere near the only TV in the building (located in the break room), I was forced to listen to 9/11 unfold over the radio like some kind of “War of the Worlds” broadcast, only it wasn’t fake. Real people were dying, and the whole of America and the rest of the world was less innocent because of it. It is a day I will never forget, and one I’m in no hurry to relive.

“8:46” is an ensemble piece that, unlike most 9/11 movies, takes the focus off the event itself and puts it onto the lives of those affected by it. We don’t look in on any celebrities or politicians, those whose names would have made headlines on a newspaper. Just people. The title, of course, comes from the moment the attacks themselves began. The first plane hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 AM (EST). The movie begins on September 10, 2011. In every respect, September 10th was just another Monday, the same as the following day was supposed to be just another Tuesday. “8:46” is a reflection of this, showing several men and women of different ethnic and social backgrounds going about their daily routines, having the same arguments with their spouses that they always do, being concerned that they make a good impression on their first day at work, or about whether or not a promotion will come their way, or saving important news for “when the time is right” because it can wait until tomorrow.

One of the best things that “8:46” has going for it is that it is an independent film. Lacking a big budget and featuring a cast of unknown actors keeps the attention on the subject matter. Movies like “World Trade Center,” “United 93” or “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” can distract the viewer with familiar faces, when anonymity is a more powerful narrative tool. We can see something of ourselves in one or more of the characters. Whether this helps elevate “8:46” to the top of the list of 9/11 films is completely subjective.

With a running time of just under an hour, “8:46” is mercifully brief. No time is wasted, even though it may appear that way at first. Extensive plot threads aren’t in the cards. You’re going to be introduced to a lot of people, but barely have enough time to get to know them or even learn their names. Who they are is unimportant. That everything they did and said on September 10th was ordinary is precisely the point. We relate to this because we go through each day of our own lives never imagining that tomorrow could be our last. It takes a tragedy on the scale of a 9/11 to emphasize the value of telling your loved ones exactly what you think of them every time you leave home.

Capricorn One (1978)

Director: Peter Hyams

Starring: Elliot Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook

On July 20, 1969, millions tuned in to their televisions, most of them watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Man was landing on the Moon. It ranks as one of the pivotal moments in our history. All who witnessed it will never forget where they were nor what they saw. But what did they really see? Conspiracy theorists would tell you that none of it was real, that it was all performed on a sound stage. There is much evidence to refute these claims. I was born a decade too late to be able to say I watched the live broadcast, but I’ve seen the archival footage time and time again, enough to know that it’s a part of our history, and we have recorded video evidence as proof that it happened. You might as well tell me that we were filming a movie in Vietnam, or that every family vacation we’ve ever captured on camera was a sham. Still, the United States has long had the most well-financed movie studios with the greatest special effects technology in the world. What if NASA decided that they needed to fake a manned outer space mission?

Astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and John Walker (O.J. Simpson), about to embark on the first manned mission to Mars, are pulled from their space vehicle just before launch and told that the life-support system is cheap, faulty, and won’t last long enough for them to survive their journey. Capricorn One launches as scheduled without its three-man crew, and the men are coerced by Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) into performing for the cameras as though the mission were going according to plan. Something goes wrong with the rocket upon re-entry and the nation mourns. The astronauts, realizing that the world believes them to be dead, separate in the hope that at least one of them will reach civilization and reveal the truth.

The best parts of “Capricorn One” are in the beginning, during the faux Mars mission. Tensions mount as the astronauts struggle with continuing to perpetrate the lie, pretending to traverse the surface of Mars or talk to their families from the command module when they’re really just miles away in a film studio. The rest of the movie is a standard, race-against-the-clock chase sequence that’s been done to death. The plot loses steam in the last hour and never really recovers. There is never any doubt who will survive nor how dramatic their entrance at the end will be. The cast, which is mostly good, doesn’t get enough individual moments to make them feel like anything other than cardboard cutouts.

Writer/Director Peter Hyams got the idea for “Capricorn One” from the theories that had been popping up which questioned the authenticity of the Apollo 11 footage. It seems a little outdated now, yet we’re still no closer to Mars than we were back then. At the time of the movie’s release in 1978, the only men lost in the space program were the three casualties of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967. Since then, we’ve lost fourteen other men and women with the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, in 1986 and 2003 respectively. It was not until the Columbia disaster that we had an American space mission end with the vessel breaking apart in re-entry like what happens to Capricorn One. You don’t hear of anyone insisting that the Columbia crew is still alive out there somewhere, do you? It is one thing to allege that the Lunar missions were fake, but it would be another thing entirely if people were to accuse NASA of faking the shuttle accidents for the sake of TV news ratings.