Thursday, May 25, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' (2011)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

When I initially reviewed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I declared it an improvement over Gore Verbinski's bloated and convoluted second and third movies in the series, but watching all of the Pirates movies again in close proximity this week, I have to say I slightly prefer Verbinski's ridiculous (but visually inventive) messes over this dull, workmanlike movie, which doesn't even have the spark of a boondoggle. Directed by journeyman Rob Marshall, who can bring some life to the right sort of material (his Oscar-winning Chicago may be overrated, but it's still quite entertaining), On Stranger Tides has the mark of everyone involved going through the motions, from the money-hungry studio to the director looking to branch out to the supporting actors passing time in a big blockbuster before they can get back to more interesting work. Johnny Depp finally gets to make Jack Sparrow the sole main character, but even he doesn't seem to be particularly invested in this installment.

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio return, but they come up with a much more straightforward story this time (based very loosely on an unrelated novel by Tim Powers), with a clear goal and characters whose agendas mostly make sense (although there are still the requisite double-crosses). As briefly set up by the end of the last movie, both Jack and Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa are searching for the Fountain of Youth, although since it took a few years for this movie to get made, their respective quests have been somewhat derailed as the movie opens. After a protracted London-set opening, Jack ends up back at sea under the command of yet another mythical, supernaturally powered pirate, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), whose daughter and first mate Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is Jack's former lover. Barbossa, meanwhile, has gone legit, and is searching for the Fountain on behalf of the British crown. Both are attempting to beat the Spaniards to the finish line, although the presence of the Spanish crew is mostly pointless, since none of them become relevant (or even, as far as I could tell, named) characters, and don't have any bearing on the action until the very end.

Poor Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann don't get so much as a mention here, and most of Jack and Barbossa's previous stalwart crew members are absent as well (aside from Kevin R. McNally as Jack's trusty first mate Gibbs, who still disappears for long stretches). It makes the movie feel curiously underpopulated, even with the various new villains. Marshall also lacks Verbinski's talent for spectacle, and the action sequences are universally underwhelming, without any big sea battles. Much of the movie takes place on land, and the entire final act features the characters trudging through the jungle, with a climactic sword battle among a bunch of shrubbery. It's a far cry from the epic clashing of armadas in At World's End.

To sort of replace Will and Elizabeth, the filmmakers throw in a half-hearted romantic subplot for a religious missionary, a member of Blackbeard's crew who falls in love with a mermaid. Sam Claflin and Astrid Berg├Ęs-Frisbey are completely bland as the pair of young lovers, and their story doesn't get going until more than halfway through the movie. It's not quite clear why Claflin's Bible-toting character ended up as part of a pirate crew, nor why the unnamed mermaid (whom he dubs Syrena) rejects the monstrous ways of her race, whose main purpose seems to be to kill and devour humans. Their story ends with her whisking him away to the depths, without any indication of where they're going or how she might save him from a mortal wound. They're not set to appear in the next movie, and the majority of this forgettable installment seems destined to be ignored in the overall Pirates mythos.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' (2007)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

I ended up splitting my recent viewing of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World's End, into three separate installments, and it felt like binge-watching an entire TV season, one which has dug itself into deeper and deeper plot holes by the season finale. And yet the movie was designed to be consumed as a single, nearly three-hour experience, an exhausting endeavor that struggles to balance its genuine entertainment value with a tortuous plot and characters whose initial appeal has severely declined. Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow is elevated nearly to the status of a demigod in this movie, and yet his casual, offhanded humor is almost completely absent. The movie actually keeps him offscreen for the first half-hour, but then compensates with periodic scenes featuring multiple Jack Sparrows, as Jack hallucinates various versions of himself offering up dubious advice.

The first movie presented Jack as a scrappy crook barely getting by, but in this movie he's worth an entire quest to the afterlife (where he ended up after being devoured by the kraken at the end of Dead Man's Chest) and is one of nine "pirate lords" who make up a secret council that governs the entire pirate society (he's also the son of a sort of keeper of pirate law, played by Keith Richards in a thudding literalization of what started out as a lively joke). The end of Dead Man's Chest left plenty of dangling plotlines, but instead of resolving those in a rousing, concise finale, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio add on a bunch of new plotlines, including one major new character (pirate captain Sao Feng, played by Chow Yun-Fat), downplaying some of the previous movie's biggest threats (the kraken is killed offscreen in a single line of dialogue) to make room for new ones.

The characters spend the first hour retrieving Jack from the afterlife and getting him back in place to take on Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and newly emboldened East India Company bureaucrat Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, having fun with his officious condescension). Most of the second hour involves all of the characters making various deals and arrangements that successfully make it impossible for the audience to figure out who is allied with whom and what each faction's goal is. That leads into the nearly hourlong action climax and multiple endings -- which then set up a potential plot for another installment. (I had always remembered the fourth movie as a standalone tale, but it follows directly from Jack and Barbossa's final scenes here.)

Even as the plot grows more incomprehensible (there's a scene in the middle featuring five or six characters making various negotiations that change their allegiances multiple times within a few minutes), the action is still exciting, and Verbinski is still a master of large-scale battles and effects-driven spectacle. It's hard to care about the outcome of a battle whose stakes have become completely unclear, but at the same time it can still be enjoyable to watch a bunch of ridiculous characters fight each other. Geoffrey Rush is still fun as Barbossa, and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley do their best to bring some emotional grounding to the story, but the romance between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (including a marriage ceremony in the middle of a battle!) is still a total dud. It's gratifying to see Elizabeth as the captain of her own ship, even if the mechanics of getting her there are a bit nonsensical. The entire movie is a series of nonsensical plot developments that occasionally produce cool results.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' (2006)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Following the surprise success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, there was suddenly high demand for a sequel to a movie that really leaves no obvious avenue for following up. Instead of creating another self-contained adventure for Johnny Depp's breakout character Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and director Gore Verbinski concoct an elaborate, practically incomprehensible two-movie epic that attempts to turn a fun adventure movie based on a theme-park ride into a grand fantasy universe on par with The Lord of the Rings. Financially, the bid paid off, with the second and third Pirates movies, beginning with Dead Man's Chest, raking in tons of money at the box office. But watching both movies feels like a chore, a slog through endless plot and more dull romantic swooning in order to get to the meager good stuff.

That good stuff is still mostly Depp's amusing performance, which by Dead Man's Chest is already growing a bit tired but is still good for a few laughs. Less successful is the effort to add some dimensions to Jack, whose role as comic relief and plot mover in The Curse of the Black Pearl is expanded here to capitalize on his popularity. The cliffhanger at the end hinges on the question of whether Jack is willing to make a noble sacrifice for his crew and friends, and the entire plot is set into motion by a deal that Jack made years ago and is now attempting to get out of. That deal comes courtesy of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), who's the movie's main villain even though it takes him an hour to show up onscreen.

Jones and his crew (on the fabled ship the Flying Dutchman) are triumphs of design and special effects, each one a sort of mutant hybrid between humans and various sea creatures (although they're simply another crew of undead pirates to replace the villainous crew of undead pirates in the last movie). Verbinksi takes advantage of the large budget with plenty of great-looking effects, sets and costume design, along with some big action set pieces (although there's only one major sea battle between ships). As good as the movie looks, though, the narrative is still full of tiresome twists and detours; an entire segment devoted to Jack and his crew kidnapped by cannibals (depicted with questionable cultural sensitivity) has no bearing on the overall story and could have been cut altogether.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom both spend significant portions of the movie captured and imprisoned by various forces, and the main motivation for their involvement in the Davy Jones storyline disappears about halfway through the movie. Delivering a fake-out that hints at a romance between Jack and Knightley's Elizabeth Swann (and giving Depp and Knightley an uncomfortable kiss) is one of the movie's most shameless ploys. After two and a half hours, nothing is even close to being resolved, and the filmmakers trot out Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa to prime the audience for the next movie in place of any genuine forward momentum.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' (2003)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

It may be hard to remember now, but there was a time when Johnny Depp was an underdog. Casting him in a main role in a big-budget Disney movie was something of a risk, and in the first Pirates of the Caribbean adventure, Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is more of a facilitator for the romance between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) than the primary focus of the story. Sparrow, of course, works best in small doses, and he's at his most appealing and entertaining in The Curse of the Black Pearl, able to utter a funny line and then step away for the plot to move forward. That plot is still convoluted and lumbering (although less so than it will become in later installments), and the movie isn't quite as lively as it ought to be. But it's still mostly fun to watch, certainly more so than any that came after it, and if it hadn't become a massive worldwide success, it could have been a fun little hidden Disney gem.

The Pirates brand has also become so closely associated with Depp that it's easy to forget that this movie was based on an iconic Disney ride, one which has now been retrofitted to feature elements from the movies (I bet there's a whole generation of Disneyland and Disney World visitors who have no idea that the ride came decades before the movies). So there's a sense of fun to spotting the references and seeing how the filmmakers came up with a story to fit the ride's aesthetic, mixing some historical aspects of piracy in the Caribbean with a supernatural story that allows for ghostly pirate skeletons. Again, the historical aspect is pretty much thrown out in the subsequent movies, but here there actually is a certain attention to period detail (even if it's cartoonish and exaggerated).

While Bloom and Knightley are lovely to look at, the love story between the wealthy governor's daughter and the humble blacksmith is pretty dull, and the obstacles to their being together get kind of tiresome. Luckily Jack Sparrow is there to poke fun at things, and Depp is quite amusing as the drunken, roguish (but good-hearted) pirate. Depp gets all the attention, but Geoffrey Rush is every bit as amusing playing the villainous Barbossa, and Rush really nails the pirate-speak, while Depp goes off on his Keith Richards impression. More than anyone else, Rush really feels like he's embodying the hokey but endearing spirit of the ride.

The movie, too, mostly embodies that spirit, although like every movie in the series, it goes on for too long (even if it's one of the shortest installments), with a plot full of too many reversals and double-crosses. Since there was no indication of the massive success to come and no need to set up a sequel, Black Pearl at least has a clean, definitive ending, leaving the characters in a position to be happy and sail off into the sunset (literally). Along the way there are some exciting sea battles, some funny lines and some entertaining side characters. Tighten it by 20 minutes and it would come close to being the modern adventure classic that fans make it out to be.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Summer School: 'Prometheus' (2012)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Anticipation for Ridley Scott's Prometheus was so high before it was released that I think I went into the screening expecting to be disappointed, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot to like about the movie. Watching it again now, I expected to enjoy it again, and while I appreciated most of the elements that I had appreciated the first time, I was more aware of the many flaws. I still have a positive overall impression of the movie, which doesn't live up to its lofty ambitions and doesn't really add anything meaningful to the core Alien storyline, but does have some breathtaking visuals, a few expertly suspenseful scenes and at least one great performance. It's not worth getting rapturous over, but it's not worth all the griping, either.

The basics of the story are actually remarkably similar to Scott's original Alien, with the diverse crew of an interstellar vessel landing on an unfamiliar planet and encountering hostile monsters there, eventually getting picked off one by one. In this case the ship has gone purposefully looking for alien life, but the characters are no better at intelligently responding to threats than the random characters in Alien (and in many cases make significantly dumber decisions). Set about 30 years before the events of Alien, Prometheus follows an exploratory vessel looking for the so-called Engineers, a race of beings who may have been responsible for the creation of the human race. In basing its mission around the findings of a pair of archaeologists on Earth, Prometheus actually mimics some of the ideas from Paul W.S. Anderson's Alien vs. Predator, with both drawing on the "ancient aliens" hypothesis that gets a lot of traction on message boards online.

Scott spends a lot more time pondering big ideas than Anderson did, of course, but Prometheus' dorm-room philosophizing is pretty far from mind-blowing. The Engineers also seem to have engineered the alien xenomorphs, although those creatures don't appear in any form until literally the last shot of the movie. Before that, the crew finds plenty of other deadly creatures on the planet they've been led to by ancient cave drawings, all of which are apparently weapons created by the Engineers to wipe out other races. Or something like that -- a lot of the supposed revelations of the movie are muddled and unclear, and thinking about them for too long makes them seem even less revelatory.

Luckily, Scott has a lot more to go on, especially the film's gorgeous look, which is constantly awe-inspiring. All of the new creatures look creepy and unsettling, the alien planet feels truly alien, and every bit of set design has purpose and beauty. This is one of the few movies that I actually appreciated more in 3D (it was also shot with native 3D cameras, which almost no production even bothers with anymore), and the visuals are truly immersive, drawing you into this harsh but wondrous world. The performance aren't always as accomplished, but Michael Fassbender is terrific as the chilly, amoral android David, a worthy successor to Ian Holm's Ash from Alien. Noomi Rapace plays the Ripley figure, one of the two scientists who discovered the existence of the Engineers, but she doesn't have the same steely determination. Charlize Theron's corporate liaison Meredith Vickers is meant as a villain of sorts, but she's actually the most pragmatic and level-headed character in the movie (at least until her pointless demise).

The movie aims to ask plenty of important questions about existence, but audiences mostly wondered why certain plot details didn't add up, or why Guy Pearce was cast to play an elderly man in distracting makeup, rather than just casting an actual older actor. When Scott stages scenes like the incredibly intense robotic surgery that Rapace's Dr. Shaw gives herself to remove an alien parasite, those nagging questions disappear. But the movie isn't quite captivating enough to make them go away completely.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Summer School: 'Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem' (2007)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

And here we hit rock bottom. On the whole, the Alien franchise is remarkably durable, accommodating the visions of various distinctive filmmakers, sometimes within the same movie, while building up memorable characters and providing long-lasting licensing opportunities. It can easily survive a movie like Paul W.S. Anderson's Alien vs. Predator, a disposable B-level action thriller with little to say and even less lasting impact. But the directors of Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (brothers Colin and Greg Strause) make Anderson look like Ridley Scott, and it's a testament to just how durable this franchise is that not only did Requiem not kill it, but it also managed to bounce back to creative and financial heights only five years later with Prometheus.

Requiem is such a poorly made movie with such a generic, hacky premise that it's beneath the dignity of both aliens and predators. After the events of AVP, which took pains to isolate the aliens and predators in a remote location on Earth and limit their contact with humans, the Strauses and screenwriter Shane Salerno just dump the creatures in a small town in the middle of Colorado, where they encounter hundreds of people and eventually face down the U.S. military. If Anderson was doing his best to preserve series continuity, the filmmakers here are basically making a mockery of it, and their lazy callbacks somehow make the disregard for previous movies even more insulting.

You don't need to be a dedicated fan of the Alien or Predator movies in order to be insulted by the shoddy filmmaking in this movie, which is shot like someone fired the lighting department and consequently edited like no one involved could see what was going on in each frame. The predator ship that took off from Earth at the end of the last movie quickly crashes, thanks to an alien that gets loose on board, triggering an alert for another predator to travel from the creatures' home world (the glimpse of which is the movie's only moment of mild creativity) to Earth to clean up the mess. Soon there are multiple aliens loose in the small Colorado town of Gunnison, where they function as second-rate slasher-movie villains taking out tired stereotypes including horny teenagers, a troubled loner returning to town and a local sheriff who's quickly in over his head.

The predator is pretty much the hero of this movie, although its motivations aren't entirely clear -- it seems to want to contain the alien threat (it has some kind of goop that conveniently dissolves bodies instantly, leaving no trace), but it also randomly kills a few humans along the way. The alien that burst out of a predator's chest at the end of the last movie is a sort of alien/predator hybrid (which actually has a bit of established precedent, as the aliens are meant to take some characteristics from the beings they gestate in), and it also apparently has the ability to plant its embryos directly into humans without the need for eggs or facehuggers.

The hybrid was a cool visual for a second at the end of AVP, but it mostly looks goofy at full size -- not that you can see much of it, given how murky all the images are. Nearly every fight scene takes place in the dark and/or in the rain, and while Anderson at least offered up exciting battles, the Strauses can't even manage that. The human characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue is idiotic, and the plot makes the universe-threatening menaces of previous Alien movies into the equivalent of Critters or Ghoulies. AVP could still fit into the series as a minor entry, but Requiem is best forgotten altogether.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Summer School: 'Alien vs. Predator' (2004)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Originally, I hadn't planned to include the two Alien vs. Predator movies in this look back at the Alien franchise -- to be honest, I had totally forgotten about them. But after my friend and fellow critic Jacob Tiranno of Chasing Cinema asked me whether I would be covering them, I realized that it only made sense not to leave them out. Theoretically, they take place within the continuity of the other movies, and they probably fit about as well as Prometheus does (which is to say, only if you allow for a bit of fudging of timelines). Alien vs. Predator even features a major role for Lance Henriksen as Charles Bishop Weyland, head of the corporation that would presumably eventually become the evil Weyland-Yutani, and presumably also the template for the later Bishop android (and also the ancestor of Henriksen's human character in Alien 3). It's a nice callback that unfortunately doesn't amount to much, and really Henriksen could have been traded out for any actor playing any generic rich industrialist.

That generic feel extends to the entire cast, which is led by Sanaa Lathan as an outdoor adventure guide recruited by Weyland to help explore a newly discovered ancient pyramid thousands of feet below the Antarctic ice. The typical team of experts and security personnel enters the pyramid only to discover that they've placed themselves in the middle of a centuries-old ritual combat between aliens and predators. Yes, director and co-writer Paul W.S. Anderson uses the meme-friendly "ancient aliens" theory to connect the aliens and predators to human history, and it's actually a pretty ingenious way of bringing the battle between two extraterrestrial species to present-day Earth. Anderson has said that he wanted to respect the franchise continuity, and since Ripley and her crew had never heard about the aliens in the far future, it makes sense to tie them to an easily discredited crackpot theory (and also to make sure that they all die by the end of the movie, along with all but one of the human characters who could report their existence to the outside world).

That's about all Anderson has to offer when it comes to big ideas, though, and once the characters end up inside the pyramid, the movie focuses entirely on action. Anderson has a weirdly dedicated following among a certain subset of cinephiles for his populist action movies, including the Resident Evil series, Pompeii and the cult classic Event Horizon, but I find most of his work pretty unremarkable, and even if he knows how to stage competent action scenes, he has very little skill for storytelling or dialogue or character development. The action scenes in AVP, especially once the title characters start fighting each other, are actually pretty solid, and the maze-like pyramid, with its constantly shifting corridors, is a decent setting for a movie about running and fighting. For viewers who just wanted to finally see the aliens and predators fight onscreen, this was probably good enough. (I said as much in my initial review, which was a bit more positive than my reaction upon rewatching the movie this week.)

Everything else is pretty weak, though. Lathan is an underrated actress, but her character is kind of a pale imitation of Ripley, the hyper-competent woman who ends up rallying her colleagues and figuring out how to defeat the monsters, even as everyone is dying around her. She gets one bit of back story, which is more than any of the other characters get, and the group dynamics don't have much time to develop before people start getting killed off. Henriksen's presence is the biggest missed opportunity, and his performance lacks the spark of his previous work as Bishop. Possibly my favorite thing in the movie is the background joke of characters watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man on TV -- in reference to James Cameron's derisive remarks about the prospect of this movie (although he later admitted to liking it). Taken in the spirit of that Universal monster schlock-fest, AVP is not a bad time.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Summer School: 'Alien: Resurrection' (1997)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

I've already admitted to liking Alien 3, so here's an even more unpopular admission: I also like Alien: Resurrection, and always have. It's not quite as formally accomplished or thematically rich as Alien 3, but it's stylish and entertaining, and it manages to take the series in yet another new direction. I love the progression of Ripley in the four core movies: First, she's hunted by an alien. Then, she hunts aliens. Then, she gestates an alien. And finally, she is an alien. Ripley's return here doesn't feel like a cop-out, and it doesn't negate anything that happened in the previous movies (including Ripley's death). Instead it moves the story and the character forward in an intriguing way, while still allowing for the basic set-up of humans getting stalked and killed by aliens.

And there are a lot of aliens in this movie -- maybe not more than in Aliens in terms of sheer numbers, but they show up early and often and are more integral to the progression of the storytelling than in other movies. Two hundred years after sacrificing herself to prevent the birth of an alien queen, Ripley has been cloned and revived, in order for scientists to extract the queen that was gestating inside her. Her DNA and the alien's have been mixed during the cloning process, and so this Ripley is at least part alien, with slightly corrosive blood and a detached, animalistic personality. It is in many ways a new character, and Sigourney Weaver tackles it with as much depth as she brought to the previous movies, mixing Ripley's typical no-nonsense manner with a sort of primal, instinctual energy that comes from her newly alien origins.

The rest of the characters are not nearly as compelling, even Winona Ryder as the android Call, who gets a lot of screen time but manages to be less interesting than previous androids Ash or Bishop. The early Joss Whedon screenplay sometimes seems like a test run for his later work on Firefly, with a ragtag crew of space pirates quipping their way through danger. But French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, making his first English-language movie (and his first without previous co-director Marc Caro), is the wrong choice for a dialogue-heavy script in English (he reportedly barely spoke English at the time, and required an interpreter on-set), and most of Whedon's jokes and bits of wordplay fall flat. There are still some great lines (Ripley saying "I'm the monster's mother" is one of the best moments in the whole series), but Jeunet and the actors mostly fail to do Whedon's writing justice.

Visually, Jeunet fares much better, bringing the same kind of whimsical grotesquerie as his first two movies (directed with Caro), Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. The military science vessel is a labyrinth of dank corridors, and the characters' weapons and other equipment are elaborate, impractical-looking contraptions. Jeunet shoots with plenty of skewed angles and odd close-ups, and the acting is exaggerated and sometimes cartoonish (although really no more overstated than Bill Paxton's performance in Aliens). It all goes a bit too far in the finale, when the alien queen gives birth to an alien/human hybrid that looks really silly, making for a completely unconvincing threat to be defeated by the remaining heroes. There are some interesting ideas here about reproductive power and the ethics of human cloning (a very Cronenbergian scene of Ripley looking at the failed previous clones is pretty harrowing), but Jeunet and Whedon kind of glide past them in favor of excessive gore and clumsy one-liners. Resurrection may be the weakest and most inconsequential of the Ripley movies, but it still holds up the intelligence and risk-taking of the franchise as a whole.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Summer School: 'Alien 3' (1992)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Rewatching the previous two Alien movies, I stuck with the original cuts, which I generally prefer unless a movie has been drastically altered from a director's vision. In the case of Alien, Ridley Scott actually also prefers the original cut to the so-called "director's cut" (which I did see in theaters in 2003), and for Aliens, I just have no interest in watching even more of what is already a very long movie, even though James Cameron favors the longer cut, as do many fans (I'm not sure I've ever seen that version, actually). But for Alien 3, I decided to take a chance on the "Assembly Cut," a version put together from director David Fincher's original edit, although not an actual "director's cut," since it was reconstructed without Fincher's involvement. Alien 3 had a notoriously troubled production history, and Fincher has since disowned it entirely, but I wanted to at least come close to seeing the movie he would have made without studio interference.

To be honest, I've always liked Alien 3; I liked it when it was first released (I'm pretty sure I saw it in theaters), I liked it when I rewatched the whole series in 2003 in advance of the Alien director's cut being released, and I liked it again now, seeing the Assembly Cut for the first time. I can't say whether I necessarily preferred this cut to the theatrical version (since I haven't seen that one in 14 years), but it did feel like a fuller, more immersive movie, especially in its first half, with some strong character development and an effectively realized setting. As the liner notes of the DVD state, a true director's cut would involve allowing Fincher to reshoot the entire movie from scratch, but to me this seems like a decent substitute, and to offer up a bit of blasphemy, I actually like it more than Aliens.

It's an admirably bleak and austere movie, which is what many people dislike about it, and it turns off a lot of fans by unceremoniously killing Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn) and young Newt (Carrie Henn) before the opening credits have finished rolling, with neither actor actually appearing in the movie (Lance Henriksen shows up briefly as a nearly destroyed Bishop, and later as Bishop's human creator). I understand that people grew attached to those characters, but as someone who found the sentimental tone of Aliens a bit grating at times, I wasn't bothered to see those characters killed off, and their deaths give Ripley an extra haunted quality that Sigourney Weaver plays very well. They certainly aren't forgotten about, and the scene in which Ripley examines Newt's body for signs of alien infestation is quite touching and melancholy.

The whole movie has a melancholy tone, with Ripley as a somber and shaken survivor stranded on a prison planet in the backwater of space, populated by a handful of male convicts who've formed a sort of religious commune. It's an effective change from the camaraderie of the Nostromo crew or the Colonial Marines, with Ripley as a mistrusted outsider. Charles S. Dutton is quietly powerful as the prisoners' religious leader, and Charles Dance, now best known for Game of Thrones, makes a surprisingly sympathetic friend and confidant for Ripley. Weaver is as good here as she was in the previous movies, with the same determination and competence, but tempered by a weary resignation, especially once she learns she's carrying the alien queen.

Although it's often cited as an AIDS metaphor, to me the alien in the movie functions more like a cancer, especially in the scene in which Ripley gets a body scan to discover the queen growing inside her. It's reminiscent of similar scenes in medical dramas, as the patient gets the devastating news of a tumor. With her shaved head and lean physique, Ripley even looks a bit like a cancer patient, especially late in the movie as she starts feeling more and more ill thanks to the malignant presence in her body. (Related to that, one thing that disappointed me in the Assembly Cut was the change to the final shot of Ripley, as she plunges herself into an incinerator: In the theatrical cut, we see the alien burst from her chest at the last second, and it's a powerful, visceral moment; Fincher apparently preferred simply to show Ripley plunging to her death, without that final jolt.)

Even if the illness metaphor is a bit muddled, the stark environment and the volatile personal dynamics make for a tense, engrossing movie. The big finale is a bit confusing, and the longer cut incorporates two separate elaborate plans to catch the alien, at different points in the movie, which makes that final convoluted sequence a bit redundant. While the design of the alien is scarier and more menacing than before, the effects are sometimes clumsily incorporated into the frame, a result of making a movie during a transition period in effects technology. Alien 3 certainly has its flaws, and the longer cut isn't a magic solution to them. But it's a severely underrated movie that takes the series in another interesting direction, and it deserves a better reputation than it has.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Summer School: 'Aliens' (1986)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Starting with its title, Aliens promises something more than Alien, an expansion on the small-scale concept of the previous movie. And it delivers just that, with more characters, more aliens, more violence, more back story and a longer running time (by about 20 minutes, with an additional nearly 20 more in the extended special edition). More isn't necessarily better, but while Aliens is merely a very entertaining action/sci-fi movie (as opposed to the masterpiece of Alien), it's still a remarkably successful sequel, respecting and expanding upon the key elements of the first movie while forging its own distinct identity.

If Sigourney Weaver was mostly an ensemble player last time around, here she's unequivocally the star, even if she's surrounded by another endearingly motley crew. As he would later do with Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, writer-director James Cameron here turns Ripley into a badass action hero, although she was pretty badass already as she single-handedly defeated the monster at the end of the last movie. Awakened after a 57-year hypersleep, Ripley is horrified to discover that the planet where the Nostromo first found the alien parasites has been colonized, and she's roped into a mission to investigate when the sinister company (here given a name, Weyland-Yutani), conveniently loses touch with the colonists soon after Ripley is revived.

It's all a bit convenient, but it gives Cameron the chance to revisit the aliens in a similar but new context, as Ripley joins a crew of Colonial Marines on their mission to the planet. These are highly trained military recruits as opposed to the working stiffs of the Nostromo, but they still mostly get their asses handed to them by the aliens, this time an entire swarm of them who've taken out nearly the entire colony. I realize that plenty of lines from this movie have become iconic, but I find all the comic relief and banter a little tiresome (especially Bill Paxton's hammy performance), and the sentiment gets a little overstated as well, with Ripley forming a sappy maternal bond with young Newt (Carrie Henn), the colony's only survivor.

Still, Cameron builds suspense nearly as well as Ridley Scott did, establishing all the characters and the looming threat before unleashing terror. I had remembered this as a nonstop action movie, but it actually starts slowly, and once again the alien(s) don't show up until an hour into the movie. Once they do, though, Cameron uses them a lot more liberally than Scott did, and the second hour of the movie is packed with tons of action. Despite its lower horror factor, Aliens is still frequently nail-biting and scary, although more in an adrenaline-pumping way than as slow-burning dread.

Weaver (who was nominated for an Oscar) really steps up as the more action-oriented version of Ripley, while retaining her no-bullshit persona, and Paul Reiser is the standout in the supporting cast as the consummate corporate weasel, always looking out for the bottom line at the expense of human lives. I also like Lance Henriksen's take on Bishop, a helpful android who exists in contrast to the sinister Ash from the previous movie. The fan culture around this movie favors the broad supporting characters, but I prefer when Cameron quiets them down and lets the action speak for itself.

Triskaidekaphilia: '8213: Gacy House' (2010)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Produced by "mockbuster" factory The Asylum, found-footage cheapie 8213: Gacy House was released to capitalize on the success of the Paranormal Activity movies, although its plot more closely resembles The Blair Witch Project. Also known as Paranormal Entity 2 (although it has nothing to do with The Asylum's previous found-footage movie Paranormal Entity), Gacy House follows a team of ghost hunters as they spend a night in the home of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, hoping to summon his ghost (the number in the title refers to the address). Actually, strike that -- as the opening text indicates, Gacy's actual house was demolished following his arrest, with another house built on the same site three years later (which isn't quite what happened in real life). So the characters are actually spending the night in a house built on the same spot where Gacy's house once stood, although that doesn't stop them from constantly referring to the (abandoned, yet inexplicably well-furnished) house as Gacy's home.

That's just one of the sloppy elements of this slapdash movie, which like most Asylum productions is more focused on getting things done quickly and cheaply than any sort of quality control. The characters have supposedly been traveling around the country, invoking spirits at the homes of various notorious serial killers, but their ghost-hunting methods are as careless as the filmmaking, and they seem surprised to somehow be encountering dangerous phenomena at Gacy's house, despite that being the entire point of their project. Writer-director Anthony Fankhauser uses reality TV-style confessionals to fill in some of the details and rudimentary character backgrounds, but it's never quite clear when the characters are recording these interviews, or why they bother to continue to record them as they are being terrorized by an evil spirit.

Most of that terrorizing involves budget-friendly things like slamming doors and flickering lights, and the movie is dull and relatively uneventful until the very end, when Gacy's ghost (or whatever) starts flinging people around and killing them (mainly offscreen, though). This is an exploitation B-movie, so Fankhauser also finds room for a sex scene (for some reason two of the characters have no qualms about getting naked and doing it right in the middle of their ghost-hunting expedition), and the psychic hired by the crew is played by busty softcore regular Diana Terranova, whose top is conveniently torn off by the ghost in the final chaos. The acting overall is not that bad, though, and better than what I've seen in a number of other Asylum productions. Presumably the actors had to improvise a lot, given the found-footage approach, and they handle it better than expected.

The biggest misstep, really, is the connection to John Wayne Gacy, which at best is sloppy and at worst is mildly offensive. There's really no reason this couldn't have been about a fictional serial killer, since nothing about the way the characters are attacked really depends on Gacy's background. It's established even within the world of the movie that this is not actually Gacy's house (despite what the characters say), and the only specific evocation of Gacy's real crimes is a distasteful scene in which the psychic attempts to summon Gacy's spirit by offering him a T-shirt worn by her underage neighbor, since Gacy was known for murdering teenage boys. It's one tasteless moment in a movie that's otherwise entirely bland, and if Fankhauser wasn't going to aim for all-out shock value, he might as well have left it alone. Of course, without it, even the tiny amount of uniqueness in this generic cash-in would be gone.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Summer School: 'Alien' (1979)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

What is there left to say about Alien? It's one of the most influential and acclaimed sci-fi movies of all time, and 38 years after its release, the same director is in charge of a heavily hyped new installment in the series. It's been analyzed and praised in every possible way, including by me, and watching it again didn't necessarily give me any important new insight into its greatness. But at the same time, it's always a pleasure to sit down with again, even for someone who rarely watches movies more than once (even movies that I love). I was reminded of how impressive Ridley Scott's direction is, down to every little detail, and how perfectly nearly every aspect of the movie comes together, from the writing to the acting to the set design to the costumes to the special effects. These days, Alien is a huge corporate franchise and a pop-culture phenomenon, but the first movie established nearly everything important about the series with ingenuity and limited resources.

Given how iconic the alien itself has become, it's easy to forget that the creature doesn't show up until nearly an hour into the movie, and even then it's onscreen sparingly for the rest of the time. Like most good horror movies, Alien builds tension via what it doesn't show, as the small crew of the Nostromo grows more agitated and afraid by their inability to capture and/or kill the alien, which is picking them off one by one. Even before the alien itself appears, there's a sense of eerie emptiness to the large ship with its spartan crew and the dark, abandoned planet emitting the distress signal. I'd like to think that even audiences seeing this in 1979, without any knowledge of what's to come, would be in suspense during that slow-building first hour, which culminates in the horrifying and brilliant scene of the alien bursting out of John Hurt's chest.

And speaking of Hurt, the cast in this movie is fantastic; people think of Sigourney Weaver as the star of the franchise, but she's just one equal member of an ensemble up until the last half-hour or so. She's great, of course, projecting a cool competence as Ripley, who's constantly undermined and underestimated until she takes charge. I was struck this time by Ian Holm's brilliant performance as Ash, giving small sinister hints from the very beginning as he subtly sabotages the crew's efforts to avoid the alien and leave the planet. Even when Ash goes full-on evil, Holm keeps his performance chilly and clinical. Tom Skerritt projects macho cool as the cynical captain, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto have great chemistry as the wisecracking mechanics, and Veronica Cartwright is tough but vulnerable as the crew's most empathetic member. Even the cat is good.

The ship looks believably grungy and lived-in, as do the crew members' outfits. We're so used to clean, antiseptic sci-fi locations in modern movies that it's refreshing to see something that actually resembles a human working and living space. Almost all of the special effects hold up remarkably well, and many of them could easily match up to current CGI. Scott's camera roves and rambles through the ship, giving a great sense of the space for later when the characters are running from the alien (or trying to track it down). Pretty much everything about this series as it developed got really big really quickly: big budgets, big casts, big ambitions, big ideas, big running times. But Scott achieves the most out of any of the series' films by keeping things small and contained.