Friday, September 28, 2018

Alien (1979) (Movie Review)

     All throughout the year, I’ve been reviewing genera classics, and have basically been seeing the praises out of them. However, just because a film is billed as a classic, and respectful for breaking new grounds, that doesn’t mean I’ll always love it. With October just around the corner, I wanted to take a moment to discuss a film that I respect on its own grounds as a classic, but have never had any real feelings for. The 1979 motion picture “Alien” is often labeled as one of the absolute best in either the Sci-Fi or Horror genera, yet in all honesty, I’ve always fond this film to be slightly underwhelming. Now following two years off the heels of “Star Wars”, “Alien” did succeed in braking new ground by merging Sci-Fi and Horror into one package, and with a modern look. Again, I can respect how this was an intense thrill ride for its time, and why it left an impact on a generation of movie viewers, but’s it’s still never stuck with me as anything special, unlike other monster themed classics including “Jurassic Park”, “Jaws”, “Predator” or even the 1986 sequel “Aliens”, which are all among my personal favorite films.  

      The plot is that of your standard slasher flick, only this time it’s set in outer space as opposed to a camp ground or deserted country side, but the basic formula still remains the same. A small group of people are alone in a giant space ship, cut off from the rest of the world, and after an unexpected stop on a barren moon, they begin to drop like flies at the hands of an uninvited passenger that’s determined to see everyone dead. In the end, only our female lead is lucky enough to escape and defeat the monster. The ingenuity behind the Alien creature is the driving force of the film, but the experience is something that’s subject to personal taste. This movie is all about atmosphere and mood, as opposed to wall to wall monster action. I for one am all for atmosphere, but for some reason, it just never worked for me in this film. There’s a hand full of good surprise scares, but there’s also a number of false scares too, which I can’t stand. Also, while there’s a very good set-up for the monster, sequences and events just get very predictable once the creature is loose. The characters are nothing special either, while the performances are all very solid, I never bothered to remember any of these characters afterword. The one exception is our lead character named Ripley, played by the always enduring Sigourney Weaver. She is easy to cheer for, but she wouldn’t join the ranks of my favorite characters until the sequel came out later.

      The absolute best thing about this movie by far is its setting, and the set-design is a work of art to say the least. It’s all so detailed, and effective that it becomes a character in of itself. Being stuck on this claustrophobic Spaceship, with no-one around to help you is genuinely intense. However, it does so much more than simply add to the mood of the film, it also looks stunning, and in my opinion will go down in history along with “Star Wars” as one of the best visual achievements in Sci-Fi cinema. I never once get the feeling like these characters are on a Hollywood set, as I genuinely feel like this is a state-of-the-art spaceship, with detailed consoles, detailed props that are all over the place, and even the outer design of the space ship is interesting. It doesn’t even look like a space ship, it actually looks like a big floating castle, which further characterizes this as a horror movie in space. It also makes the frightening realization of easily getting lost in that ship all the more real. Naturally the film won the Oscar for best effects, and also received a nomination for best art design. The music was done by the always fantastic Jerry Goldsmith, and even though this score is small and quiet, it really works for establishing an eerie atmosphere.  

       The way the alien creature comes to be is also effective, as it goes through various stages before taking its final form. Instead of just hatching from an egg, it releases a small creature that latches onto a victims face, then lays an egg in its body, which then latter hatches by bursting out of the victims chest and finally it takes on its full grown form. That’s plenty frightening to think that a creature is growing in your stomach just waiting to burst out, and when it finally happens, it leads to one of the most famous death scenes in film history. The unfortunate victim that ultimately has a small alien bursting out of his chest is played by the late John Hurt, who was one of the best actors of his generation. In the 1987 Mel Brooks comedy “Spaceballs”, John Hurt makes a cameo in a scene that parody’s “Alien”. The creature bursts from his chest, to which John Hurt responds by saying “Oh No, Not Again!”

     Of course, the creatures design by H. R. Giger is fantastic, arguably one of the most original and imposing depictions of a hostile outer space creature that I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the settings are so darkly lit, and the film cuts so fast that you only get little glimpses of it, preventing you from fully appreciating how awesome the alien looks. In the movies full two hour run time, the creature is only on screen for roughly three and a half minutes. I know the old saying that “less is more” and what we don’t see is often scarier, but there are other films that I feel do a much better job utilize this formula. The 1987 classic “Predator” is a perfect example, as we don’t fiscally see the monster until the end of the movie, but we always felt its presence. That film allowed us to see the monster’s unique perspective of “sight” and we got to see an outline of what he looks like in his invisible form. This effectively conveyed the creature’s presence without showing the monster at all, and when he’s finally revealed, it feels so satisfying because he’s visibly on screen for the whole third act. “Alien” by contrast never really conveyed the monster’s presence, nor did it give me a satisfying pay-off with the creature on screen.   

     To be as fair as possible, this movie does contain some imaginative new elements that I’d never seen in other motion pictures. It features one of the most unique title screens I’ve ever seen, with the title slowly being constructed as the opening credits roll underneath. There’s also a subplot involving a crew member named Ash who’s revealed to be an android. He goes through something of a “HAL 9000” phase in which he wants to preserve the creature at the cost of the crew’s life. When he gets destroyed, it leads to more awesome gross-out effects. This is personally my favorite part of the film, as it was completely unexpected, plus I’ve always been a fan of tales revolving around artificial intelligence and the dangers that may come with it. Ian Holm is down right chilling in the role, and it’s cool to observe his behavior on repeat viewings with the knowledge that you know his real identity. It’s almost too good for this movie, as I find the subplot revolving around this android more interesting, and subsequently more frightening then the main story with the alien monster. The last thing you want in a film of this sort is for the supporting villain to be more interesting then your main creature.

    Another issue I’ve always had with this film is that it goes on and on, and the premise is just too simplistic for such a lengthy run time. The third act also gets very tiring, as we’re just watching our lone survivor run around this dark ship, with flashing lights, and very little excitement. Even the final showdown between Ripley and the Alien always felt a little anti-climactic to me. Whenever the movie ends I frequently find myself asking “why did I spend two hours watching that, what did it really do for me?” It didn’t give me anything meaningful to ponder, nor did it really entertain me. While I absolutely admired the craft and talent on display, I just never felt that excited, or submersed, and shockingly … it really didn’t scare me, but I can only speak for myself in that regard. Now while I love Sci-Fi’s with lots of action and spectacle, I also love slow moving horror movies that rely on atmosphere and build up. Yet, while I can see “Alien” leaving those effects on some viewers, I just can’t say it did any of that for me. 

Perhaps the big thing that keeps “Alien” from leaving any kind of impact on me is that in my view it’s dwarfed by its 1986 sequel titled “Aliens”. That sequel to me is more than just a superior film, it’s personally one of my favorite movies of all time. It takes the basic formula of a B monster movie and turns it into an A+ masterpiece that I still watch frequently to this day. The story is bigger, involving space marines going into battle against armies of aliens as opposed to just one, and not forgetting an awesome new alien queen. The action sequences are thrilling, the weapons and vehicles are awesome, the sets and visuals are brought up on a grander scale and the characters are downright spectacular. These are people I cheered for and remember fondly even after the film closes. This movie still has a lot of horror elements and some downright terrifying sequences, but there’s so much more to this film then just scares, exciting battles, and cool sets. It’s a movie that made me care for its characters, I was always perfectly happy spending time with them, and as a result I really didn’t care about the Aliens lack of screen time. “Aliens” in my opinion is a genuinely great action, Sci-Fi, Horror extravaganza that just gets better with age. Now, without a full evaluation, here’s what I thought of the other installments in the series.   

Alien 3” premiered in 1992, and to this day I consider it to be one of the worst movie sequels of all time. It repeats the first movie again, focusing on a single alien as opposed to several, it has a small group of completely expendable characters that get killed off, but this time it has absolutely none of the precious good qualities featured in the original film. It also spoiled the triumphant ending of “Aliens” by killing off the majority of that film’s survivors. I’d give it a 2/10.

The fourth installment titled “Alien Resurrection” was slightly more fun to watch, but the bloated story, and shameful re-interpretations of characters like Ripley made it another misfire for the series. Basically, this film deals with clones, alien’s spliced with human genes, and has a goofy slapstick overtone that makes it feel very distant from the others. However, this film can at least pass as guilty pleasure entertainment. I’d give it a 5/10.

"Alien Covenant" premiered in 2017, and stands as the fifth film in the series, but’s it’s also a sequel to the 2012 Sci-Fi titled “Prometheus”. As a result, I felt that the film had no identity of its own, as it was trying to combine two completely different films together. It was admittedly one of the best-looking films in the series, and admittedly more entertaining to watch then even the original. However, the first film could at least stand as a memorable classic, and while “Alien Covenant” was a perfectly entertaining watch, it also had no staying power and was mostly forgettable. I’d give it a 6/10.

It may seem that “Aliens” is the only film in the series that I love, but there is one other that, while not as good, I do still have a lot of fondness reserved for. The 2004 crossover titled “Alien vs Predator” was the film that introduced me to the Alien series in the first place, so I can’t help but have a special, nostalgic connection to that one. Even though it’s not high art, it has still held up for me as a perfectly entertaining monster movie. I’d give it a 7/10.

Unfortunately, in 2007 there was a sequel titled “Aliens vs Predator: Requiem”, and that film was just plain disposable garbage. Despite some mildly entertaining monster brawls (and a terrific lead Predator), this film represents the series when it plays out like a conventional teen horror movie, with no defining qualities, no original ideas, and perhaps the worst lighting I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. I’d give it a 4/10.

Then at last in 2012 came the movie “Prometheus”, which really had no business being part of this franchise. I think it could have been a perfectly satisfying, even thought-provoking Sci-Fi on its own without the baggage of clinging to an already existing franchise. It’s unfortunate, because there was some real potential there, but nothing special really stood out, and now it’s just that random anomaly in the franchise.  


      As for the 1979 motion picture “Alien”, it’s not a bad movie by any means, and has earned the right to be called a motion picture classic. It just won’t be sticking with me as any kind of favorite. It’s one of those films I’m glad I watched, but it’s really one of those “one-time view movies”. I know I’m likely in the minority about that, but I’m not going to lie about my feelings either. Unlike “Jurassic Park” or “Jaws”, which just get better and better every time, “Alien” was a film that fell beneath my expectations, but I can at least respect and admire it’s contributions to both the Sci-Fi genera, and film in general. If you like this movie, that’s fine, but if you’re only planning on watching one Alien movie, I’d highly advise sticking with its sequel “Aliens” instead.

I give the 1979 motion picture “Alien” 2 ½ stars out of 5.                        

Monday, September 24, 2018

My Top 10 Favorite Action Movie Brawls

    Action sequences can come in quiet the variety, and for me, my favorite layout has always been an action brawl. Not a large-scale war, or a one on one dual, or a car chase, or a shoot-out comprised of only rapid gun fire ... I mean a brawl with a reasonable amount of people ducking it out in either a tight space or small area, utilizing either weapons, bare fists, martial arts or maybe even superpowers. This is when action can get the most wild, exciting, creative and just plain fun to view. There’s lots I could select from, so, without trying to make some kind of official list, I’m just going to keep it simple by counting down my own personal top 10 favorite action movie brawls.

#10 The Warehouse Attack from “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” 

While this is personally my least favorite of Batman’s theatrical movies, it’s still not without some real highlights, including this thrilling action scene. When Superman’s mother is kidnapped, and held in a Warehouse, the Man of Steel has to trust his new ally Batman to rescue her. What follows is nothing short of awesome. Putting aside the ethics of the character, this has got to be one of Batman’s greatest stand out action set pieces of the whole franchise. It’s relentlessly fast paced, with brutal hand to hand combat, and Batman pulling off incredible stunts. We also see every side of Batman ranging from stealthy to brutally direct. My only problem once again is that it’s sandwiched in-between all the other action mayhem of the third act, and I wish it could have stood apart during all the talky scenes of earlier. Still, it’s a memorable fight scene in of itself, and will hold a special place among super hero fans.

#9 The Factory Battle from “Dragons Forever” 

When it comes to Martial Arts Cinema, Jacki Chan easily stands out from the crowd, and is prominent in some of the greatest martial arts battles ever put to film. If I had to pick one for my own list, it would be the final factory showdown from “Dragons Forever”. In this late 80’s Kung Fu flick, Jacki and his comrades venture into a drug factory searching for their captive older brother, only to discover that the bad guys are refining narcotics. Thus, in an effort to shut them down, an all-out brawl breaks out in the factory, and it’s quiet the spectacle to behold. While the current generation of action movie gores can get distracted by the more flashy, special effects driven battles, this demonstrates the art of practical, breathless, physical action that’s all-in camera. It’s absolutely stunning to look at, with the factory setting being a perfect layout for a fight of this sort. It’s also very brutal, with heavy blows, and incredible stunt work. There’s a spectacular moment when one of the guys leaps through a broken window with razor edging. Bodies are flying all over, people smash through windows, the slow-motion camera angles are all great, and it leaves me feeling soar every time I watch it.

#8 Gas Station Rumble from “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” 

Now I’m the kind of guy who loves comedy just as much as he loves action, so I just had to include one funny fight sequence, and this is my personal favorite. In this classic 1970’s comedy, a group of random people are on the race for riches, as literally each person in the film is trying to get to buried treasure before the other. One of the more lovable treasure seekers is named Lennie, and he hits quiet the pump in the road when he finds himself trapped at a gas station with two attendants that are preventing him from leaving. What follows is arguably one of the funniest and most destructive fight scenes ever put to film. The gas station itself is more fragile than an elementary school’s theater set, and seeing Lennie tare it apart is an absolute delight. As the fight wages he continues to do more and more dame to this station in his effort to escape. By the time the fight ends, the entire station is completely leveled to the ground. It’s so funny and over the top that I find myself laughing all the way through to the next scene.

#7 Bikers battle Vampires in “From Dusk Till Dawn” 

When two criminals take a family hostage in an effort to sneak out of the country, they venture into Mexico, and subtle for the night at a biker bar. Much to their surprise and misfortune, the bar is actually a nest for vampires, and their hungry. So now criminals, strangers, hostages and rough bikers must learn to work together to survive and slay the vampires. What follows is one of the most wildly entertaining battles I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. It’s cools just seeing how many creative and over the top ways we can see vampires die, or explode, or melt or transform into giant rat monsters. The absolute best kill is when a vampire’s heart get ripped out and then impaled with a pensile. It’s completely out of control and if you’re a monster movie buff, you have to check this film out. It’s also cool to see the variety of weapons used against the vampires, including water balloons filed with holly water, a goofy belt gun, and leading the charge is jackhammer stake wilding George Clooney, who in my opinion has never been more awesome then right here. Oh, and the lead vampire is played by the insanely attractive Salma Hayek, and seeing her clash with George Clooney is the icing on the cake that solidifies this as my all-time favorite movie brawl in a bar setting.

#6 Iron Suits to the rescue from “Iron Man 3” 

When the President is held captive by a band of terrorists, Tony Stark has little chose but to go in for the rescue without the aid of his armored suit. Fortunately for our hero, just as he’s surrounded by enhanced fire powered villains, his small army of robotic suits fly in to even the playing field, and what follows I personally one of my favorite action scenes to ever be featured in a super hero movie. While this fight comes dangerously close into a full-on battle, I feel it stays just contained enough on the abandoned oil rig to still count for my list. What makes it work is the creativity on display, and seeing the various ways the suits due in the bad guys. It’s also great to see the Iron suits there for Tony, and it’s all the more exciting to just see him jumping in and out of them. Another highlight is how the music builds, just before the suits attack, and Tony’s line “It’s Christmas ... take them to Church”, might just be my favorite line of his. There’s riveting energy, high stakes and no shortage of spectacular imagination on display.  

#5 Rey and Ren Versus the Pretorian Guards from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” 

During this installment of the Star Wars saga, the vileness Kylo Ren has taken our lead heroine Rey captive, and presents her before his vile master Snoke. Much to my surprise and delight, Kylo Ren refuses to follow the orders of his master and slays him, which leads into a battle with his remaining Pretorian Guards. Considering that “The Last Jedi” is only the middle chapter in a set trilogy, I didn’t think the main villain would reform this early, but it sure was satisfying just for a moment to see both our main protagonist and lead antagonist team-up for an all-out brawl against heavily armed guards. Now we’ve seen Jedi slice through brainless droids before, but these guards actually put up more of a fight, and had the means to combat someone wielding a lightsaber. The setting, the fight choreography, the relentless energy, the stylish editing on display … it’s all one big feast for the eyes, and arguably one of the greatest fight scenes in all of “Star Wars”. However, beyond being a riveting spectacle, it’s the novelty of just seeing a hero and villain team up for once, and give us a fleeing hope that maybe Kylo Ren can reform. Of course, this only makes the drama hit home when Kylo Ren reveals that he has no intention of changing sides, and it was such a welcome twist that set the series in a daring new direction.  

#4 The Chateau Fight from “The Matrix Reloaded” 

On a mission to rescue one Key Maker, the chosen hero Neo finds himself trapped in a mansion with heavily armed worriers. This is personally my favorite action scene from this mixed, but mostly fun sequel. Whenever I think back on “Reloaded” it’s the Chateau sword fight that always stands out, as this is the only battle to feature a great use (and variety) of hand held weapons, and the choreography on display is stunning. This scene is just a perfect example of how an artist can be very creative with an action-set-piece, and it leaves me breathless every time I watch it. This is also the only fight from the movie that’s shot almost entirely in camera with very minimal CGI added in. Generally speaking, the action here is shot with ideal grace and rhythm, giving the weapon choreography the feel of a dance or ballet. No shaky camera, no relentlessly fast editing, it’s all very fluent, and it’s always stood out to me as a perfect template for how to do action right.

#3 Wolverine and Yukio Versus the Black Ninja Clan from “The Wolverine” 

During a mission to protect the air to the largest Japanese company, Wolverine finds himself falling in love with the young woman and is determined to keep her safe. Unfortunately, it’s not too long before she gets kidnaped, and our favorite clawed hero goes in pursuit to rescue her. The scene plays out and is even shot like a classic medieval fable, with the beautiful princess locked in a tower and the brave knight battling various obstacles, with the figurative dragon coming in the form of a young swordsman who leads a mighty band of Ninja’s. The ensuing battle with Wolverine fighting the Black Clan in the abandoned village regrettably wasn’t in the theatrical cut of the film, but the extended cut put it back in its rightful place, and it’s personally one of my favorite action scenes of the whole X-Men film series. We have ninjas driving motorcycles on rooftops, we also have chain whips, explosions, Yukio drives this massive snow plow and literally shreds the villains in her path ... it’s just crazy awesome! The setting is also really cool, and it’s just a refreshing departure from what you’d usually see in an X-Men film. Typically, in these films we only see Wolverine battle another super-powered mutant, but it’s cool to see a clan of ninja’s deliver something new, as well as provide a real challenge for our hero to concur.

#2 The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves from “Kill Bill Vol.1” 

Following the events of a wedding massacre, one lonely bride is out for revenge against those who took everything from her. Thus, her mission takes her to Tokyo, where she aims to face a crime boss named O-Ren Ishii, but first the Bride has to battle her faithful body guard and her own personal army called the Crazy 88. This whole final battle is often regarded as one of the absolute greatest action sequences of the past decade, and for good reason. While she’s insanely outnumbered, her drive for vengeance gets her to power through every one of these armed goons. Not only is this battle insanely well-choreographed, but it’s also executed with a great sense of style and subtle hummer. It’s out of control, completely absurd, not meant to be taken seriously, but that’s what makes it so fun. The fight is also a loving tribute to 1970’s martial art cinema, and the house setting is woven into the action choreography with great craft and staging. We see them fighting as silhouettes in a colorful room, the violence is cartoonishly over the top, filters change from black & white to color, and the music arrangement makes the scene come of as part fight and part dance, which is brilliant.   

There were obviously a lot of memorable brawls to choose from, and before I reveal my favorite, here are some Honorable Mentions … 
Skeleton Fight from “Jason and the Argonauts”,

Castle Raid from “The Scorpion King”, 

Bamboo fight from “House of Flying Daggers”, 

News crew brawl from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, 

Playground rumble from “Police Story 2”,

#1 The Airport Battle from “Captain America: Civil War” 

When a rift forms between the Avengers on how best to take responsible actions, a villain secretly takes advantage of this debate, and by putting select things in motion, he succeeds in turning this mighty team of heroes against one another. The culmination of this conflict is a massive brawl at an abandoned airport, in which the two divided sides of the Avengers duke it out in a spectacular melee. The beauty of this set-up is that we’re cheering for both sides of this battle, we identify with the point of view of each character, and the last thing we want is to see best friends rip each other apart. So, there’s a good deal of emotional context beneath the spectacle, but even putting the emotional context aside, this is still one of the most amazing feats of action ever put to film. In the words of video game journalist Adam Sessler (who was talking about something unrelated) “It indulges in childhood fantasies, I never thought could be realized”. This simply is one of the most thrilling action scenes I’ve ever experienced as a movie goer, and it takes me right back to things I dreamed of seeing as a child, but could never imagine actually coming to life. Seeing Spider-Man and all these iconic hero’s clashing in one big showdown offers a great deal of variety and fun, with multiple super-powers on display, and truly inventive ways of seeing them clash with other characters. I love seeing Ant-Man ride one of Hawkeyes arrows, and then dropping himself off in Iron Man’s suit. I loved seeing the Scarlet Witch use her powers to toss various cars and objects with her mind powers. I loved seeing Spider-Man web up a giant, along with two flying iron hero’s delivering the finishing blow. Also, the moment in which the two teams charge at each other is an absolutely riveting moment that gets me fired up every time I watch this. It’s creative, emotional, flashy and entertaining as hell to view on just about every level. To call this my favorite action movie brawl is an understatement, because it truly is one of my all-time favorite action sequences put to film.

The End