31 Days to Scare ~ Alien (1979)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a space merchant vessel receives an unknown transmission as a distress call, one of the crew is attacked by a mysterious life form and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  It’s Memorial Day weekend 1979 and you are an audience member in one of the 90 theaters showing a movie called Alien.  You’ve only seen the poster with the tagline, ‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’  Maybe you saw the teaser trailer (one of the all time best) in front of another movie earlier in the year or perhaps you’ve seen nothing of the film at all.  This is a time before the internet and the type of massive publicity surge studios use to show nearly everything but the closing credits before a movie opens.  No one else has told you what to expect, no dialogue later to become iconic has been quoted endlessly, there have been no copycats that tried to ride its genre coattails to similar success.  Everything about this is new to you.  I am so jealous of you!!

Seriously, think back to a time before you saw one of your favorite movies and then think about yourself now and how things changed after that experience.  You wish you could go back and relive that first thrill again.  While you can watch your go-to dozens of times over and only grow to love it more, nothing will beat that sweet first glimpse of greatness that made it so memorable in the first place.  Jaws, Jurassic Park, Moulin Rouge!, Grease 2 (yes, Grease 2), Rear Window, The Sound of Music, The Godfather – just a handful of titles that come to mind I’d love to go back and experience again like I’d never seen them before.  Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien sits high on that list as well…and pretty high up.

A supreme genre hybrid and crown jewel in both science fiction and horror, Alien is the be-all, end-all of creature feature films set in the stars while also impressing as an incredibly scary haunted house flick with a few nods to the Westerns made famous in the ’50s.  Go into Alien without knowing what’s in store and you are sure to have shock after shock, finding a scream around every corner of the large commercial space vessel Nostromo which gets cleverly boarded by our titular character. 

The original idea of screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, both sci-fi fans with ties to the industry, the existence of the film can be tied back to the Star Wars craze.  Fans were clamoring for more space odysseys and with The Empire Strikes Back still in development/production and not due until 1980, 20th Century Fox took the first space script that came to them, then called Star Beast.  Renamed Alien, the studio hired relatively new director Scott (recently represented with The Last Duel) to lead the way of the modestly budgeted picture and Scott cast the film using the freedom the script gave him by making the characters unisex.  That means we could have gotten a male Ripley if Sigourney Weaver (Copycat) had decided to skip her audition that day.  While Weaver is just one of a fantastic ensemble of actors and would only later truly step into a spotlight leading role in 1986’s Aliens, almost from the start you can see the then 29 year-old actress taking control of the screen anytime she’s present. 

Weaver hangs to the side for much of the first hour of the film, as her crew answers a distress call on a small moon they were redirected to as they made their way home.  Landing on the barren terra, the three crew volunteers tasked with finding the source of the signal instead find what looks to be a spaceship in ruins and eventually encounter an…unpleasantness which leaves one crew member incapacitated.  Bringing him back on board to give him medical care, they restart the journey home as fast as possible but it’s already too late.  They’ve brought something on board that will emerge, grow, and kill them one by one until only one is left to face the towering creature head on.

Even watching the movie for as long as I have, I’ll never get over at how ahead of its time it was.  On so many levels.  First off, the presence of such a strong female character that winds up the lead is so rare in this genre and this certain type of take-charge female is particularly impressive.  Other films feature women that become strong or fall into a position of being forced to adapt or else, but Weaver plays Ripley as a woman that’s always been proving herself and this experience is not all that different.  She would return to the role again in three subsequent sequels and was Oscar-nominated for the next film but here is where it all began, and the groundwork is laid strong for what develops over the years. 

Another way the film seems ahead of its time is that it literally looks like it was made a decade or more in the future and then shipped back for the audience to view.  The special effects are outstanding and deservedly won an Oscar and the production design was also nominated and could have likely won as well because the magnitude of the sets is jaw-dropping.  Budgeted at 11 million dollars, the producers made their money go a long way and it shows in each blinking light on the control panels, grandeur of the planetary design, and scale of the ship’s shadowy corridors.  The alien itself is just a man (Bolaji Badejo) in a rubber suit but the costume is so detailed and the editing from Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherley so skilled that you never notice the seams. 

Anyone with a pulse should feel it racing at some point during Alien.  Using not just the creature itself but light, practical design/effects, and our own imaginations to create scenarios in our head, Alien creates a high sense of dread that rarely lets the audience have time to catch their breath. The cast, the production, and Scott’s assured hand in direction combine to give what could have been a B-movie in the wrong hands a classy sheen that’s stood the test of time.  Even today it remains an extremely frightening film that works because of its simplicity in scaring us. Countless movies have tried without the same type of (or any) success in recreating what Alien brings forth…just stick with the biggest baddest mother of them all.

Movie Review ~ Jackie

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ve found that the mention of the Kennedy clan is, at this point in American culture, met with either exhaustion or adulation.  Countless documentaries have been made over the years and it seems like a new and noteworthy book finds its way to shelves every other month.  That doesn’t even count the movies.  So, suffice it to say, the woes of the Kennedy’s are known and easily accessible to anyone that cares to investigate further.

So why Jackie and why now?  We’ve seen the first lady portrayed on screens big and small (and even on stage in a one-woman show) but we’ve never seen it quite like this before.  Taking a page from recent biopics that focus on one small window of time in the life of a historical figure, Jackie is an exceedingly engaging film that welcomes us to stare and gawk at the tragedy that changed the direction of our nation.

Jumping back and forth and around and through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay pulls the attention away from the president to focus on Jackie herself and how her grief revealed a woman bolder and stronger than even her closest allies realized.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín may be an out of the box choice for this American as apple pie film but perhaps being un-enamored with the legendary Kennedy family was needed to tell this tale with such uprightness.

As Jackie, Natalie Portman (Thor: The Dark World) gives the performance of her career and gets my vote for Best Actress of 2016 for the way she buries herself in the role.  The funny thing is, you always know it’s Portman but you see and hear Jackie through and through.  I was worried that her pronounced Kennedy accent would be a distraction and, honestly, it is but mostly because no one else in the cast rises to the same level of technicality in their work.  Even so, the performance is bravely honest when it shows Jackie at her most brusquely direct and emotionally powerful when she lets her guard down and her sorrow bleeds through. Here is a woman that knew the power of media (visual and print) and made a point to stay in the public eye in the days after the assassination so no one would forget the price she and her children paid.  Though Portman is featured in gorgeous costumes and is always pristine (even when covered in blood), the performance lacks any kind of vanity.  Truly exceptional work is on display here.

With a leading role sketched with such skill, the supporting characters need to be on point too and for the most part Jackie’s support staff get the job done.  Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) is nicely understated as a White House staffer/confidant, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) plays a fictionalized reporter Oppenheim uses as a framing device and serves as the voice of the people, and John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) turns up late in the film as a priest attending to Jackie’s questions of faith.  The only major disappointment is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) sonorously taking on Bobby Kennedy with neither the accent, looks, or charm that is profoundly needed.  Sarsgaard sticks out like a sore, unconvincing thumb…especially in scenes featuring him with Jackie and JFK.

Along with Madeline Fontaine’s glorious costumes and Jean Rabasse’s beautifully articulate production design, Mica Levi (Under the Skin) has composed a most unusual and original score that you’re either going to love or hate.  Nearly always conveying a mood that is opposite to what is happening on screen, it gives another layer of depth to feature film about a family possessing public vs private personas that often are in competition with each other.

Audiences going to see another recreation of JFK’s assassination or conspiracy surrounding it are advised to steer clear as Jackie is about the woman behind the president and the storm she weathered behind closed White House doors while she remained strong in public for a nation in mourning

The Silver Bullet ~ Jackie

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Synopsis: Following the assassination of her husband, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Release Date: December 2, 2016

Thoughts: No matter how much people try to predict it, the Oscar season is always filled with twists and turns. A few months ago, Jackie wasn’t even on the radar for many pundits but it’s sneaking in at the last minute and could upset an already full Best Actress pool.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman’s (Thor: The Dark World) performance of the former first lady is getting raves but I’m already seeing the late night sketch shows parodying her Jackie accent. She’s dead-on with it, no question, but it takes a while to get used to. Co-starring Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Billy Crudup (Spotlight), and John Carroll Lynch (Hot Pursuit), look for Jackie to be part of the conversation as we move toward peak award season buzz.

Movie Review ~ Hercules (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Having endured his legendary twelve labors, Hercules, the Greek demigod, has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace and his daughter seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, John Hurt, Rebecca Ferguson, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie

Director: Brett Ratner

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Bound to be best remembered as the second failed Hercules film of 2014 directed by a once hot director, it’s hard to know where to begin a review for something so devoid of meaning.  I can’t speak for Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules released in January because I managed to avoid that 3D affair but Brett Ratner’s Hercules, based on the version of the half god/half human brought to life by Radical Comics, is pretty bad stuff.

About halfway through the 98 minute film (which feels twice as long) my companion leaned in and whispered “What’s the point of all this?” and he wasn’t so far off the mark.  There’s unfortunately a lot of dialogue in the film and the script from Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos is so mawkishly hackneyed that it all winds up sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher wha-wha-wha-ing into your ear.

There’s some semblance of a plot involving mercenary Hercules benefitting from his supposed legendary lineage as he clomps through a ravaged Greece where everyone either speaks with a British or, in the case of its can’t-be-bothered star, an American accent.

Skipping over the more intriguing tales of Hercules moving through an Indiana Jones-like treasure trove of scary beasties and nasty tasks, the screenwriters settle for the musty old plot device of double crosses by power hungry bad guys.  This swords and sandals snoozefest is an endurance test for the ages, compounded by a lead performance that even the inhabitants of Hades would turn their noses at.

How Dwayne “The Rock’ Johnson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Pain and Gain) has managed to becomes a movie star is beyond me.  Though he does possess a certain amount of charm when he isn’t taking himself too seriously, as Hercules he’s dead on arrival and no amount of immortal heritage can save him. Wearing one of several wigs from the Johnny Depp collection and a beard that reads more like a piece of felt, Johnson looks like a huge bicep with eyes.  Actually, remember those cartoons where an uncooked turkey would get up from the platter and walk around?  That’s how he looks.

Though Ian McShane (Snow White and the Huntsman) is the one bright spot in the film as a wise old sage always quick with a one-liner, the rest of the cast is a shamefully mixed bag.  I don’t believe John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) looks a day under 200 but that’s nothing compared to the abject horror of seeing Joseph Fiennes sporting a hair system that reminded me of Buttercup from The Princess Bride.  Rebecca Ferguson shows some spunk as a busty damsel in distress and the Nicole Kidman lookalike Ingrid Bolsø Berdal outdoes her male counterparts in a throwaway role as an Amazonian archer.

The lousy CGI work is only outdone by the lamest post 3D conversion of the summer.  You can only ooo and ahh at a spear being thrust in your face so much before it all gets terribly tiring.  Ratner used to be on Hollywood’s A-list until several cinematic stumbles and one off color homophobic remark that sent him packing as producer of the 2012 Oscar’s heralded the decline of his status.  He won’t be seeing much love either after this stinker, surely one of the worst efforts of 2014.

The Silver Bullet ~ Snowpiercer

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Synopsis: In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off all life on the planet except for a lucky few that boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system evolves.

Release Date: June 27, 2014

Thoughts: Gosh, hard to believe this film is finally seeing the light of day.  I’ve been hearing about Snowpiercer for the last several years and though its popped up on foreign soil it has yet to make its debut in US theaters.  While I’m glad this apocalyptic action film is pulling into the station soon, I can’t help but be nervous for the delay, especially with a cast of in demand players populating the train carrying the last remnants of mankind.  Chris Evans (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left AliveThe Grand Budapest Hotel), Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station),  and Ed Harris (The Abyss) are just a few of the high profile stars director Bong Joon Ho got on board.  Let’s see if the wait was worth it.

Movie Review ~ Only Lovers Left Alive

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance – which has already endured several centuries – is disrupted by the arrival of uncontrollable younger sister

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I feel like at this point in my movie viewing (and reviewing) career I should be much more familiar than I am with writer/director Jim Jarmusch. Responsible for a respectable amount of moody movies in the 80’s and 90’s, looking over his roster of work I realize that Only Lovers Left Alive is the just the second Jarmusch film I’ve seen with 2005’s Broken Flowers being the other. I’m not sure if I’m going to run right out and snap up movies like Night on Earth, Stranger Than Paradise, or Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai but based on the somber vampire flick he’s delivered here, it’s clear I need to do my homework.

Though the romantic vampire genre may have (fingers crossed!) finally run its course, Jarmusch nicely sidesteps the baring of fangs and avoids awkward kink in favor of character driven work that produces a curiously entertaining, unconventional entry in the bloodsucking oeuvre. Instead of Twilight’s Edward and Bella pawing over each other in a hazy meadow, we have Adam (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, Thor 2: The Dark World) and Eve (Tilda Swinton, The Grand Budapest Hotel) spending the first part of the film continents apart until Eve travels from exotic Tangiers to dilapidated Detroit for a reunion with her eternal flame. Like the impressively designed but fairly dated The Hunger from 1983, Only Lovers Left Alive is less about finding love than it is about what happens to a couple that have lived through many lives together.

Of course, into every vampiric life a little rain must fall and before Adam and Eve can really get down to business another creature of the night appears: Eve’s troubled sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska, Stoker). This family reunion doesn’t bring the kind of over-the-top fireworks seen in August: Osage County but the danger is very real as Ava’s free-wheeling lifestyle threatens to upend any brief bliss Adam and Eve are seeking.

It’s a very languid film and Jarmusch doesn’t make any apologies for letting his characters wax poetic about the state of art/music/literature in today’s modern society. He even introduces a true-blue historical figure, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), still alive today thanks to a bite to the neck centuries earlier. Everyone in Jarmusch’s film seems too cool for school but not in the way that could have been aggravating or eye-roll inducing. My original feeling was that the film should have been called Hipster Vampire Namedroppers, a silly but pretty accurate way to succinctly describe the players.

Somber yet at times deeply funny, Only Lovers Left Alive is a nice antidote to several years of sappy films and television series that have made vampires more romantic leads than life draining villains. I’m not sure Jarmusch’s take will please everyone but there’s something interesting going on here seasoned moviegoers may want to investigate. Just make sure to bone up on your beatnik poets and existential artists so you can nod in agreement when Jarmusch makes an obscure reference.

In Praise of Teasers – Alien (1979)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Let’s start?  Shall we?

I’m going big right away…my numero uno favorite.

Alien (1979)

Besides being one of the best movies ever made, Alien from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) boasted a truly kick-ass  trailer that only hinted at the terror to come.  While it’s a bit longer than a traditional teaser, the absence of any narration or dialogue and quick edits of scenes/characters that would soon become part of movie history help to make this one for the record books.  I especially like how the edits get faster and more intense until all hell breaks loose.  How could any sci-fi/horror fan see this trailer in the theater and not get a little tingle of excitement?  It’s not only one of the best teasers ever…it’s one of the best trailers ever.

Bonus fun – check out the teaser poster above.  Though Alien would eventually run with the famous tagline “In space no one can hear you scream” there’s something equally ominious about “A word of warning” that’s used on the early promotional poster.