Monday, June 30, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Bigalow's Last Smoke

 Written by Michael McDowell and based on a story by Kenneth Wayne Hanis, "Bigalow's Last Smoke" is like an amalgamation of Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc.," A Clockwork Orange, and the works of Franz Kafka. It's dark, paranoid, faintly science fiction but just plausible enough to be believable.

Richard Romanus plays Frank Bigalow, a chain smoker who puffs three packs a day. One day, he wakes up and finds himself trapped in his apartment. On the TV screen, Dr. Synapsis (Sam Anderson) appears and somehow is able to converse with Bigalow. The good doc explains that Bigalow, confined to a replica of his apartment, will be free to leave once he beats his addiction to cigarettes. It seems some time ago, Bigalow signed up for a service that would help him quit, and now, the agency that promises a 100-percent success rate has come to make sure he follows through.

Essentially a one-man, one-set show, "Bigalow's Last Smoke" is a tense, claustrophobic episode, one in which you get the feeling someone is spying on you from around every corner. The apartment is mostly white, giving it a very a clean, sterile look, almost like being locked in a laboratory.  Hidden cameras monitor Bigalow's every movement, and like a rat, he has nowhere to go or hide, and after a while, the pressure gets to him. He tries anger, begging, trickery, threats, and reasoning, but none of it works.

When Bigalow slips up and takes a drag on a cigarette, the company has an excruciating form of punishment. A blaring siren assaults his ear drums and a swirling, colorful bombards his eyeballs until he screams, unable to take anymore. Then, when he comes to, he finds more items of his apartment gone: his food, his books, his wardrobe. Nothing left for him except his addiction and the scrutiny of a technological, impersonal master. It's not quite as grueling or as graphic as the Ludovico Technique, but it gets the job done.

That's what so effective about "Bigalow's Last Smoke." It's about being controlled and observed by something that has complete power over you. It's even more relevant today than when the episode originally aired. Just look at the revelations about the NSA collection of data, warrent-less wiretapping, Facebook collecting personal information, and government drones in the sky, all under the notion it's for our own good; it's needed to keep us safe (or in Facebook's case, make money). Dr. Synapsis uses a similar justification for Bigalow, albeit for personal health reasons rather than national security, but in doing so, he's destroying Bigalow's free will, the very thing that makes him human. Now, that's scary.

Tales from the Darkside: The Word Processor of the Gods

At one point during "The Word Processor of the Gods," after our main character, struggling writer Richard Hagstrom (Bruce Davison), discovers that the word processor his late nephew made for him has the power to make real whatever he types, he punches into it that he has ideas for ten best-selling books. Then, he says what the hell and makes it twenty.

Considering this episode of Tales from the Darkside is based on a story by Stephen King, I wonder if that is the secret of King's success. He's been writing best-sellers for decades now, his works has inspired and continues to be the basis of countless films and television shows (Den of Geek lists more than twenty movies and TV shows in various stages of development, including new version of It, Pet Sematary, and The Stand), and he shows no sign of slowing down, even after a few announcements of retirement some years back. After all, once he uses up those twenty ideas, he could just as easily type that he has ideas for twenty more.

"The Word Processor of the Gods" plays like the first act of a feature-length movie; it's fun while it lasts, but it ends before it really gets a chance to explore its premise. When the episode begins, we meet Richard and learn quickly all the facts we need to know: he wants to be a successful writer, his son is lazy and disruptive, his wife makes Peg Bundy look like a model homemaker, and his brother, sister-in-law Belinda, and nephew Jonathan have just died in a car accident. Significantly, Richard was in love with Belinda and considered Jonathan more of a son than his actual son while his brother was a violent drunk who got them all killed in a car accident.

Through this word processor, Richard is able to alter reality to his wishes and delete what he considers negative. Out goes the son who's guitar playing blows out the fuse box; out goes the nagging wife who drinks wine and eats bon bons at the kitchen table and declares she's the breadwinner in the family because she plays Bingo on Thursdays. So it's understandable that he would at least be tempted to write a new reality in which Belinda is his wife and Jonathan is his son.

Unfortunately, once Richard actually does this, racing to do so before his word processor completely breaks down, the episode ends. It's one of the few in the run of the show to end on a seemingly happy note, but does it actually? Sure, Richard's original son and wife were annoying, selfish, and domineering, but they were his family. What right does Richard have to erase them from ever existing? That could be considered murder.

There are other questions or at least story possibilities the episode does not explore. With this kind of power, wouldn't it eventually drive anyone just a little bit crazy? Should anyone be trusted with the ability to control and alter reality? I can complications arising if an evil person got a hold of it or hell even Richard's wife. And what are the larger ramifications of the changes? Sure, people disappear from photographs when they're deleted, but what about the world at large? Take Richard's son. Wouldn't preventing him from ever existing radically alter the course of Richard's life; Richard probably spent a good deal of his time raising the boy, taking him to school, dealing with his problems, etc. That would leave blank spaces in his own life. "The Word Processor of the Gods" ends before it addresses any of the hard questions.

Still, Davison is pretty good, convincingly meek and good-hearted, even though his actions are rather questionable. I haven't read King's original story, so I don't if this is a faithful adaptation, a condensation, or what other changes might have been made. I enjoyed the episode while it lasted but wanted more. I would love to see new version that expands on the idea here.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Inside the Closet

Sometimes, it's the simple things that are the scariest. "Inside the Closet" has such a simple, straightforward premise that lends itself perfectly to the anthology format: a girl moves into creepy room that has a monster living in the closet. That's it. No deeper sociological meaning is required, no plot twists are demanded, and no greater explanation is needed. Special makeup effects legend Tom Savini takes this basic premise and crafts an intense, scary episode that taps into a common, childhood fear.

Graduate student Gail (Roberta Weiss) rents a room from Dr. Fenner (Fritz Weaver) just days before the semester starts. Fenner is a rather strict landlord, but Gail is desperate because she couldn't find another place. The room comes with a rather small closet that Fenner explains hasn't been opened in years, ever since he lost the key. But there are times, especially at night, Gail swears she can hear what she thinks is a rat crawling inside the closet, and there are other times when the door seems to open on its own. Soon, she becomes convinced something far more sinister is living inside the closet.

With two characters (not counting the monster) and two sets, "Inside the Closet" is an example of economic storytelling. Savini strips the story down to its most essential elements, and by limiting the number of locations, the episode generates a feeling of being trapped and isolated. The room itself is not very big, but there's plenty space for deep shadows that could be hiding any number of things. The closet, when open, often only reveals pitch black that seems to go on forever.

Surprisingly, given his history with gory special effects, Savini demonstrates a huge amount of restraint in terms of showing the monster. Sometimes, all we get to suggest the creature's presence is a slight movement of the closet door, somehow being nudged ever so slightly, almost as if on its own volition. Glimpses of the monster itself, at least until the very end, are similarly subtle: a webbed claw under the bed, glowing eyes, and an unfocused long shot of it in the background while something else is going on in the foreground. In perhaps the best shot of the episode, the camera begins with a shot of Gail's face as she lies on her side and then pans down to show under the bed the monster's eyes surrounded by total darkness. Just that thought of something being under the bed while you're asleep and vulnerable is just unsettling.

Because Savini and writer Michael McDowell (who also wrote Beetlejuice) refrain from giving us too much background about Fenner and the monster, they create a sense of mystery and intrigue. What does Fenner know? What does the monster want? What's it going to do? At one point, the closet, which we first saw as being empty, suddenly becomes filled with dresses, and it just generates an uneasy feeling about what is going to happen.

Tales from the Darkside: I'll Give You a Million

Remember that episode of The Simpsons in which Bart sells his soul to Millhouse for $5 and then comes to regret it? "I'll Give You a Million" is sort of a more serious version of that story.

Crooked millionaires Duncan Williams (Keenan Wynn) and Jack Blaine (George Petrie) are a pair of sporting businessmen when Duncan makes Blaine an interesting offer: $1 million for Jack's soul. Jack is something of an atheist and doesn't believe in things like souls, so after a bit of haggling and back-and-forth, they agree, and the contract is signed. Some time later, Jack discovers he's dying, and shaken up by the diagnosis, he goes to his old friend to trade back for his soul, but Duncan declines, enjoying the fact his friend is now squirming.

"I'll Give You a Million" was directed by John Harrison, who did the music of Day of the Dead and Creepshow. He also played the zombie in Dawn of the Dead that gets a screwdriver in the ear. Like other Romero associates, Harrison directed a number of Tales from the Darkside episodes and would use the experience to springboard into a more full-time directing career, including the TV miniseries of Dune in 2000 as well as Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. Harrison does, all things considered, a pretty good job here, but he's constrained by a predictable script that draws a little too much from a certain passage from Creepshow.

Harrison gets fun performances out of Wynn and Petrie. There's fun watching them try to outsmart, intimidate, and bluff each other, all through the veneer of jovial, old friendship. The problem is the narrative pretty much writes itself. We know, once the details of the contract are announced, that Jack will get cold feet and try to get out of it, Duncan will decline and only relent once it's too late, and then the big twist will happen.

Once Jack shuffles of the mortal coil, Duncan, alone in his mansion, hears sounds of an intruder, and he goes downstairs to investigate, where he finds the ghostly, rotting specter of his dead friend, who  has brought him his soul, a green mist-like substance in a jar (this is unexpected). This sequence is too close to the segment in Creepshow in which Leslie Neilson confronted by the water-logged corpse of Ted Danson and his lover, right down to the fact he's an evil rich guy in a bathrobe, carrying a gun, and he locks himself in a room, only to turn around and see the ghost standing right there.

Then, the Devil shows up, this time presented as an impeccably dressed young man with a rose, and he claims both their souls when Duncan dies of a heart attack before he can accept Jack's soul. The end. Still, as predictable and one-note "I'll Give You a Million" is, it's still pretty fun and engaging. There is a certain morbid humor in seeing these two rich guys discovering there's someone else who knows how to leverage and a manipulate a contract.

Tales from the Darkside: The New Man

Horror often works as metaphor. The monster, the vampire, the ghost, or whatever the creature is can be used to symbolize any number of real-world fears, anxieties, or issues. For example, Night of the Living Dead has been interpreted by some scholars and fans to be a reflection of the social disorder going on in the United States during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement while some earlier David Cronenberg movies about parasites and sexually-crazed maniacs such as Rabid have been said to be about venereal disease.

Alcoholism is potent material for the horror genre. Consider Stephen King's The Shining. Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic who is driven insane by the spirits of the Overlook Hotel, who use his weakness for the bottle as a way to transform him from a loving husband and father to a deranged killer. Alcohol destroys his career, threatens his family, causes him to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy, and ultimately destroys him, just as alcohol can do outside of fiction.

"The New Man," the second episode of Tales from the Darkside, is sort of a low-key version of alcoholism as a horror genre monster. There are no ghosts, no isolated hotels in the dead of winter, no ax murders, and no blood and guts. Instead, this is more like a small-scale version of The Shining as presented by Franz Kafka. There's no phantasmagoria, but you're still not sure what's real, and it's very paranoid as all the people in the main character's life turn against him. Unfortunately, the explanation at the end of the episode ruins the whole enterprise and just raises more questions than it answers.

Vic Tayback plays Alan Coombs, a real-estate salesman and a recovering alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in a year. One day at the office, a 6-year-old boy named Jerry shows, claiming to be Alan's son. Alan takes the boy to the police station, convinced it's some kind of joke or mistake because he only has one son, Petey, but when he gets home, he finds his wife angry at him for what he did to their son. She becomes convinced he's back on the bottle, but Alan insists he's clean.

That's an intriguing premise and it sets up an interesting conflict: has Alan started drinking again, causing him to black out and forget things, including the fact that he has a 6-year-old son, or is something more nefarious at work, something sinister that is altering the people around him to drive him crazy? Is he crazy all along or is what happening an attempt to drive him crazy? It's hard to say.

As the episode progresses, Alan becomes more and more unhinged. He sweats a lot, he looks disheveled, and he starts losing his temper when his family starts making accusations.The passage of time becomes a blur to him as well. Alan goes to work and apologizes for being late, and the boss tells him that it's been two days since he last showed up. His wife tells him she'll leave him if she finds out he's drinking again, but when he goes to work straight from that talk, he gets a call from her and finds out she's leaving. At the end. Alan alone in his presumed son's bedroom, finds a dresser full of shirts with Jerry's name on them along with a bottle of booze that he begins to imbibe.

But then the episode continues. We see a new employee working at Alan's desk. He too is a recovering alcoholic, demurring a drink offered by the same boss. However, Jerry shows up and claims to be his son. Huh? Is this kid supposed to be the literal demon alcohol, targeting the people at this particular office who have quit drinking?

This ending destroys the earlier ambiguity because clearly, Alan was right all along; this isn't his son, but the episode doesn't explain why the wife and the other son believe this kid is part of their family. So what happened after Alan gave in to the drink and this kid goes after someone else? Do they still think this boy is in their family? And why does this kid, assuming that's what he is, want to get recovering alcoholics to drink again? The ghosts in The Shining do that so they can control Jack Torrance; no greater purpose is presented here.

Tales from the Darkside: Trick or Treat

"Trick or Treat" is the pilot episode of Tales from the Darkside. Written by series creator George Romero and directed by Bob Balaban, more known for his acting in the likes of The Monuments Men and assorted Christopher Guest mockumentaries but who is also the director of the suburban cannibal movie Parents and the zombie spoof My Boyfriend's Back, this episode is a classic just desserts tales. In this case, an old miser and trickster finds the tables turned when something other-worldly shows up at his house to start playing tricks on him.

That miser is Gideon Hackles, played by Barnard Hughes. A store owner, Hackles has the perfect name for a greedy, Scrooge-like businessman who, in a manner of speaking, shackles the farmers of the valley he lives in. Almost everyone in the town owes him money, and he uses that leverage to control their lives. Every Halloween, he has the children of his debtors come to his house, where they are given a chance to erase their parents' debts if they find the stack of IOUs he's hidden in the house, and Hackles enjoys terrifying the young children with his elaborate tricks, traps, and contraptions. But on this particular Halloween, a witch turns up to terrorize Hackles, and it isn't long before she uses his money to show him that if he wants to, he really can take it with him.

Many villains in these short stories usually have one bad trait to define them. Hackles has several. He's greedy, he enjoys controlling adults, and he enjoys preying on young people. This is illustrated a number of ways from how he clutches his bags of money, to how he charges his accountant for a cup of coffee, and the fact he threatens to increase monthly debt payments for those parents who refuse to allow their children to trick or treat at his house. This is a man who enjoys profiting off other people's suffering, whether it be monetarily or just for his own jollies.

Before the witch shows up, we see several children try and fail to find the hidden IOUs. Hackle's house is a dark, foreboding place that he has rigged with different tricks that he triggers from a hidden room. While hidden, he taunts the children through some speaker system and relishes it each time they run screaming from the house. We see him send a plastic bat flying through the air, launch a pop skeleton, and maneuver a stuffed bear from around a corner to surprise the kids. When the witch shows up, she turns the gags against Hackles, summoning up real ghouls in their place. And worst of all, she scatters all the IOUs and his money into the air, and he chases after, trying his best to catch them all, not realizing until it's too late that the witch has led him to straight to Hell, where the Devil tells him he's getting warmer, just as Hackles had taunted the kids.

Romero's script is littered with some clever, unexpected touches. One father, established as especially desperate that he states he toughened his son up with "the belt," looks like he'll get angry when the boy fails; instead, he hugs him. Balaban also uses the camera in an effective manner, filming the kids from high angles so we look down on the frightened kids as they traverse house, reinforcing Hackle's status above these families from an economic perspective and he looks down on them. When the witch shows up and starts levitating, she's filmed from below so she looms over Hackles, demonstrating how he's now on the bottom rung of the ladder.

"Trick or Treat" is a great start to the series. The makeup on the witch and other ghouls is well done and creepy, the story and characterization is tight, and the moral, social message about greed, cruelty, and how the rich exploit the poor is done in dramatic way that doesn't come off as preachy or obtrusive. A fine start, indeed.

Tales from the Darkside

"Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality.
But...there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real,

but not as brightly lit... a darkside."

So intones the narrator during the opening of Tales from the Darkside, as shots of a colorful, pastoral landscape morph into a nightmarish, black-and-white setting, establishing a foreboding tone for what's to follow while an eerie synthesizer plays. Tales from the Darkside was a horror anthology television series created by George Romero, most famous for Night of the Living Dead, that originally ran for four seasons from 1984 to 1988. Developed as a result of the success Romero's 1982 anthology movie Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside was similar to Creepshow in a number of ways: each episode tells its own self-contained story, often contains elements of black comedy, and in the tradition of the E.C. Comics of the 1950s, features a sense of cosmic justice in which the supernatural steps into balance the scales of justice and punish the wicked.

Because this was on television, Tales from the Darkside does not feature the blood and gore of its big screen inspiration, and it is decidedly lower budgeted, unlike a similar horror television series that followed, Tales from the Crypt. The number of characters was limited, only a handful of sets were available, and there aren't many special effects. What the show did have was the works, both original and adapted, from a variety of different horror writers, including Romero himself, Stephen King (Romero's partner-in-crime on Creepshow), Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, and Michael McDowell. Stories revolved around everything from zombies to ghosts, ghouls to monsters, and the Devil turns up a few times.

Some episodes have a sci-fi bend; some have a more comedic bend. Some of the episodes are among the finest horror television ever produced; some are pure drek. As I did with Masters of Horror, I intend to review individual episodes of the series, treating them as their own stand-alone movies, even though they're only about 20 minutes in length. What I hope this does, if it works out well, is begin reviewing other TV shows on this blog in a similar fashion. I'll still do the same kind of write-ups I've been doing, but this is an idea I've been toying with for some time. I hope you'll enjoy it.


"The darkside is always there, waiting for us to enter - waiting to enter us.
Until next time, try to enjoy the daylight."

Doomsday

There's always talk about who the next great horror directors are, the next generation of filmmakers heir to the legacies of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg. For a time, I considered Neil Marshall to be at the head of the class. His first two films, Dogs Soldiers and The Descent, demonstrated enormous promise and skill, and I eagerly awaited his killer virus movie, Doomsday (2008). Like Dog Soldiers, Marshall draws heavily heavily on genre classics, most notably Escape from New York, The Road Warrior, and 28 Days Later. Unfortunately, instead of creating a kinetic, entertaining blend as he did with his werewolf movie, Marshall really doesn't give the material a fresh enough take; you're better off watching the older movies he borrows from.

Twenty-seven years after a deadly pathogen known as the Reaper Virus resulted in the quarantine of Scotland, the virus has re-emerged in London. Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) is chosen by her chief (Bob Hoskins) to lead a team into Scotland after satellite footage reveals the existence of survivors in the wasteland. Sinclair and her team search for Dr. Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell), a scientist who was researching the virus when the wall went up, and the higher-ups think he might have a cure. But Scotland proves to be a lawless, violent place filled with cannibals, psychos, and other crazies who don't care much for outsiders.

Doomsday's big problem, apart from its lack of originality, is that it gets bogged down with too much uninteresting material. The aforementioned movies it borrows from didn't spend too much time explaining their background, content to imply things and give little hints here and there, so there was some fun to imagine how things got the way they did in these worlds. We don't know how Snake Plisken lost his eye, for example, or what made him go from war hero to outlaw. Here, Sinclair is clearly an attempt to be a female, British Snake Plisken, right down to her bad-ass attitude and one eye, but we see Eden lose her eye as a child during the evacuation of Scotland and pine over her now-presumed dead mother who got her on a helicopter just as the wall went up. Time is also spent on the Prime Minister (Alexander Siddig) and his top official Canaris (David O'Hara, talking like he's got something in his throat which I guess is supposed to be menacing) politicking about why they need the cure and how Canaris plans to use the outbreak as an excuse to seize power, and it really goes nowhere.

There's also so much about the plot that makes little-to-no sense. Sinclair and her small team are sent with minimal equipment and no support because the Prime Minister and Canaris want to keep the operation a secret. Why? The virus is running rampant through London and the people are rioting. In Scotland, people have turned to cannibalism despite the presence of rabbits and herds of cows and the fact the ecosystem doesn't seem too messed up in places to grow crops, and the people still have perfect white teeth. The armored vehicles Sinclair's team arrive in prove unrealistically vulnerable to under-powered projectiles such as rocks, arrows, and Molotov cocktails. At the end, when Sinclair and what's left of her team, after they learn there's no cure, bring an immune survivor out, saying they can use her blood to manufacture a vaccine, it just reeks of bullshit. If that's really all it takes to stop this virus, a) why didn't they get out of Scotland earlier when they first met up with this person, and b) why couldn't the military have swooped in with a helicopter, snatched the first person they could, and get out of instead of sending in eight people, two of whom who aren't even armed, on the ground on a suicide mission?

Maybe all this would have been more compelling with interesting characters and better dialogue, but the characters, despite the presence of talented actors, are mostly lifeless and boring, and the dialogue is painfully stilted with its attempt to sound cool and tough. When McDowell turns up, he gets utterances such as "In the land of the infected, the immune man is king" and "But there is no cure. There never was. We had prevailed here, not because of science but through natural selection. Survival of the fittest. We have earned the right to live here." On the team, no one apart from Sinclair has anything resembling a personality, not even Sean Pertwee or Darren Morfitt, the standouts of Dog Soldiers. Hoskins gets little to do apart from look worried. Mitra is convincingly tough, but the script makes me question the character's judgment because her decisions get a number of folks killed, and her one-liners aren't memorable.

The only times Doomsday comes to life, ironically, are the death scenes. Marshall loves his splattery gore, and we get a lot of decapitations, limbs lopped off, arrows in the throat, and axes to the brain. One man is burned alive and devoured, and the leader of the cannibal punks, Sol (Craig Conway, the only person with dialogue who seems to be enjoying himself.), doesn't take his girlfriend's death too well, duct-taping her head to her body and riding with it in a car. Gorehounds might be able to enjoy the film strictly for the splatter, but be warned: Marshall employs shaky camera and rapidly-cut editing to irritating effect so you can't always tell what's happening, only realizing a character was killed when he doesn't turn up in the next scene.

Marshall does employ a few nice touches for humorous effect. McDowell has set up a medieval kingdom in a castle where his followers wear suits of armor and carry swords, and the castle still has the former tourist and gift shop signs hanging around. Sol and his cannibals have a truly whacked-out cabaret-like dance number on stage with topless women and men in kilts just before they eat someone; it's completely out of left field, but it has more energy than any other scene, even if these guys shamelessly dress like the biker gang from The Road Warrior.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Alien Resurrection

The first three Alien movies are hard-boiled science fiction. Space operas such as Star Wars, despite the presence of robots and spaceships, are more in tune with fantasy, but the Alien series, with its emphasis on space truckers, colonial marine grunts, and convicts presents an unromantic view of outer space. The alien creatures are not highly evolved, highly technological visitors, but nasty, malicious giant bugs while the humans who battle them are figures we can recognize and identify with. They travel not on luxurious star cruisers but on crowded, smoke-filled, barely functional freighters or live on hostile, dirty planets. It is not about heroes battling an evil empire or explorers boldly going where no man has gone before but about flawed, human characters trying to live their lives, and they just happen to be in space.

Alien Resurrection (1997), the final entry in the series (or at least the last one to star Sigourney Weaver or lack a predator), jettisons the hard science fiction of its predecessors, and instead of a lived-in, plausible futuristic world, the filmmakers present us with a comic-book style action movie, complete with implausible set pieces, snappy one-liners, macho posturing, and a more jokey tone. There's still quite a bit to enjoy here, but while Alien had the novelty of being the original, Aliens expanded on the vision in a new way, and Alien3 developed a strong aesthetic and thematic approach, Alien Resurrection is undoubtedly the weakest of the series.

Two-hundred years after sacrificing herself to stop the xenomorph threat, Ellen Ripley (Weaver) has been cloned by the military, and the queen alien inside of her has been extracted (just go with it). Scientists (including Brad Dourif) breed the aliens using human cargo smuggled by a group of pirates (among the crew are Winona Ryder, Michael Wincott, Ron Perlman, and Dominuqe Pinon). Of course, the aliens get out and go on the rampage, leaving Ripley to team with the other survivors to get off the ship before becoming alien chow.

Remember how I said the set-up in Alien3 cheapened everything Ripley fought for in Aliens? This is much worse, almost as if the filmmakers decided they weren't even going to pretend to be plausible or consistent with the series. Forget her heroic sacrifice to keep the universe safe; we got a franchise to sustain, and that's what I think is fundamentally wrong with Alien Resurrection: it's just about a group of people running through a spaceship, getting chased by the aliens. Sure, we have some new elements - the military holding the aliens in captivity, the cloning, the genetic effects on both the aliens and Ripley, a new creature - but they feel more like gimmicks used to give the formula a new coat a paint than something the makers were interested in exploring.

I keep referring to Weaver's character as Ripley, as do the characters, but really, she's not Ripley and not just because she's a clone. This version of Ripley is a lithesome, aggressive, self-interested creature, who because of the cloning process, has ended up with acidic blood, great strength and agility, and some sort of mental connection with the aliens. Rather than the determined survivor and maternal figure of the previous films, she's more of a comic-book style action hero, who grins like the Cheshire Cat when she tells the others the aliens will break out and kill them. There is a question of where her loyalties lie, but in the end, this really doesn't go anywhere.

Still, Weaver seems to be enjoying herself and still makes for a tough, convincing heroine. The same cannot be said for Ryder, who is very out of place. For all intents and purposes, she is the co-protagonist with Ripley, but she really doesn't hold her own. Of course, she's not helped by a script that is muddled about her motivations, role, and attitude toward Ripley.

The rest of the cast is mixed, despite having quite an eclectic bunch of actors. Wincott, Perlman, Pinon, and Gary Dourdan are fun as the pirates (Joss Whedon wrote the script, and these guys are clearly forerunners to his sci-fi show Firefly). Dourif is just kind of weird and really doesn't hang around too long, and as the head military honcho, Dan Hedaya is too comically dopey.

Alien Resurrection was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the same filmmaker who made Amelie and The City of Lost Children. He is a gifted, inventive filmmaker but more suited to light, whimsical fantasy than hard-boiled science fiction. Using a lot of wide-angle closeups, rushing cameras, and cockeyed angles, Jeunet's style is closer to Terry Gilliam's than Ridley Scott's or James Cameron's. Scott, Cameron, and David Fincher took their time establishing at least a plausible science fiction world, one that really gave thought to how these blue-collar types would operate in space, and encounters with the aliens were desperate, terrifying struggles to survive.  Jeunet's world is a zany comic book, and the battles with the aliens are cool-looking poses and stunts such as when Perlman dangles upside down to fire two pistols, an underwater encounter occurs with the aliens acting the part of sharks, and characters ricochet carefully aimed shots off walls to hit their targets.

Still, for all my issues with the film, I can't deny I was entertained by Alien Resurrection. There were parts that made me laugh, and some of the action scenes work in their own implausible ways. The production design of both the ship and the aliens is still top-notch, so it looks like an Alien movie even if it doesn't necessarily feel like one. It's not grueling, intense, or scary like the other movies in the series, but it is, in its own way, fun.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Alien3

Alien, the progenitor of the series, was at its most fundamental level a slasher movie in outer space. Aliens expanded the scope to depict a war between species. Alien3 (1992), the feature film debut of director David Fincher, scales back the action from its immediate predecessor, depicting one alien going around picking off the cast in dark, moody corridors. On one hand, this reduces the film to a rehash of the original, and the script includes a number of questionable story and character decisions (to the point that for a number of years, I pretended the movie didn't exist). But, on the other hand, Alien3 still has a lot else going for it and would have served as a more than worthy conclusion to what was then a trilogy.

Following the incident with the Xenomorph colony on LV-426, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the only survivor when her ship crashes onto the industrial prison planet Fury 161. The all-male facility only has a custodial presence of a handful of prisoners who have embraced an apocalyptic form of Christianity that views the presence of any woman as an intrusion and a handful of company officers. It isn't long before Ripley realizes an alien was on board her ship when it crashed, and now, it's on the loose, killing the men. However, Ripley soon discovers there's a reason the beast won't attack her: she's carrying a new queen alien.

Let's get the big complaints out of the way. Killing off the other survivors from Aliens (although if you consider the recent Aliens: Colonial Marines video game to be canon, then Hicks is still alive) strikes me as a cheap, arbitrary, and cruel plot device, a tactic employed by the likes of Friday the 13th to get back to the same plot as before instead of progressing the narrative. Getting rid of Newt, Ripley's surrogate daughter, the little girl she charged into the alien nest to rescue, negates everything that was accomplished in Aliens, rendering the whole thing almost pointless in the grand scheme of things. This is where the Alien series began to harden into formula. The film also has way too many characters to keep track of, and not helping matters is that everyone has a shaved head, and most of the prisoners and officials speak with British accents, so a lot of them kind of run together. Plus, this is the first Alien movie to employ computer imagery to realize at least some of the creature, and frankly, the CGI doesn't look good, looking obviously animated in.

If you can get past these hurdles, then Alien3 offers much to admire and appreciate. As directed by Fincher, the movie is the bleakest, darkest, and grimmest of the series. While the first was about fighting to survive and the second had a blast-the-bug adventure, the third film introduces a spiritual meditation to the franchise. Fury 161, with rundown metallic halls, molten furnaces, bug infestations, and dark, twisting corridors resembles an industrial hell; it's grimy, dirty, and toxic. It's filled with the lowest humanity has to offer: murderers, cutthroats, rapists, lunatics, addicts, and fanatics. Ripley literally falls onto this hellhole of a planet where she must once again battle demons from her past.

As in the other entries, Weaver gives Ripley the take-charge attitude that makes her one of the genre's most compelling protagonists, but she also gives Ripley an element of weariness and resignation. Dressed as one of the prisoners, right down to her shaved head, she can't help but compare to Joan of Arc, the woman who will lead this group of men based on the knowledge she has (in this case, her experience with the aliens as opposed to divine visions from God). All her friends and loved ones are dead; she has been stripped of everything that could assist her in her fight, and even before the movie begins proper, she's doomed. Down to only her strength of character, with no weapons and only a bunch of thugs as allies, we see what she's truly made of. Ultimately, she proves to be the savior of the universe, sacrificing herself to save the world from the threat she carries inside her. When she falls back into the furnace, her arms are spread out like Jesus on the cross.

While sacrifice and strength are Ripley's traits, redemption is all the prisoners can hope for. Men long forgotten at the "ass end of the totem pole," condemned for the crimes they've committed, battling the alien and foiling the company's plans are all they can hope for. Like Ripley, they're doomed, easy pickings for the alien or expendable to the company, but as their leader Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) declares, "You're all gonna die. The only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet? Or on your fuckin' knees... begging?" 

Alien3 also has one of the more interesting depictions of the gender politics at play in the series. In the first two movies, men and women were relatively equal before the alien threat, and in Aliens in particular, the battle came down to a fight between two mothers, Ripley and the Queen. Here, Ripley is the only woman on a planet of hostile, repressed men who consider her an interloper. Gone are the shabby, blue-collar space truckers of the Nostromo and the gung-ho, heavily-armed brothers- (and sisters)-in-arms of the Suloco. At one point, Ripley even has to fight off a gang rape. Ultimately, she's the one who once again takes charge and leads the fight against the monster.

Even though many of them are interchangeable and hard to keep track of (though this is likely by design to be disorienting), the prisoners make for an interesting lot, and like the other films, they are strongly cast. The standouts are Dutton, their leader who initially resents Ripley's presence but who ends up following her lead and rallying the others to her cause, and Charles Dance as Clemons, the medical officer who Ripley develops a close relationship with; they are probably the most morally conflicted and ambiguous characters in the series.

The computer effects of the creature as I said are weak, but the practical effects have never looked better or more convincingly lifelike, especially in the face-to-face shot between it and Ripley. Fincher stages several gory attack scenes that while not as original as the ones in Alien, they are almost as effective.  The film also has the interesting conceit that there are no firearms or other weapons on Fury 161, so the only way to defeat the alien is to lure it into a trap. With the racing, upside down point-of-view camera to suggest the creature scuttling across the ceiling, the sequence is exciting and intense.

While Alien is creepy fun in the haunted house tradition and Aliens is rousing action-movie entertainment, Alien3 is depressing. Fincher, who would go on to give us the likes of Se7en, includes a number of sad, wounding images and scenes: the autopsy of Newt, complete with a bloody bone saw and sickening sound effects; the friendly android Bishop reduced to the junk heap pile; and the funeral. It's not the kind of movie to inspire you to feel uplifted, but all the same, it's hard to deny the craft and artistry that went into it.

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) suffers from what I think is a lame, generic title that gives very little information or clues as to what the film is actually about; it could really be applied to any story in which the passage of a day occurs. Frankly, I would have used the movie's tagline, "Live. Die. Repeat." as its name; it establishes the sci-fi element and is a more intriguing phrase.

Edge of Tomorrow is the splicing of Groundhog Day and Halo (or a science fiction war story for those of you who don't know much about video games). In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray played a cynical TV weatherman who found himself reliving the holiday over and over in Punxsutawney; as he repeated Feb. 2, encountering identical scenarios, he gradually underwent a change, becoming a better person. Here, Tom Cruise plays a military officer who finds himself repeating the same battle over and over again against alien invaders; each time he's killed, he learns something new to help him in his fight to save the world.

Directed by Doug Liman and based on the Japanse Manga All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow centers on Major William Cage, a public relations officer with the U.S. military on the eve of a multinational counter-invasion of Europe to drive out a mysterious alien race known as the Mimics, who landed on Earth five years ago. After trying to blackmail his superior officer, General Brigham (Brendan Glesson), to avoid having to go in with the troops, Cage is labeled a deserter, demoted to private, and dropped in with the rest of the grunts. The battle is a complete disaster for the humans, who are almost completely wiped out, and Cage is killed only minutes into the fight. But somehow, he wakes up the day before the battle, the clock reset. Somehow, he has acquired the ability to reset time from the aliens (hence why they've dominated the war so far). Teaming up with war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who once had the same ability, Cage needs to figure out how to win the war in a single day.

Tom Cruise playing a handsome, charming shirker who tries to get out of his duty and ends up finding the strength and courage to be the hero? I've never seen that before (except in A Few Good Men, War of the Worlds, Top Gun, Rain Man). Cruise catches a lot of flak for personal and professional reasons, but to his credit, he demonstrates here, as he has in his past, a willingness to add his star power to more thoughtful and original blockbusters, films that combine big special effects extravaganzas and action with more intelligent scripts and concepts, such as Minority Report

Edge of Tomorrow has the requisite action and imagery for the genre. The human offensive resembles  a futuristic D-Day, with thousands upon thousands of troops in high-powered and heavily armed suits dropping onto a French beachhead from the sky. The Mimics, which we learn little about apart from how they operate and what they look like, kind of resemble the Shadow Beast creatures from another video game, The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess. They're quick and mean, they burrow through the ground to spring up and surprise the confused humans, and they have deadly tentacles. Most importantly, they're convincingly alien and dangerous. And in true video game fashion, the big bad Alpha, like the final boss of a game, is a leviathan of a challenge.

Comparisons to video games are actually a compliment in this case. After all, any player who knows the challenge and frustration of having to replay the same level over and over again, making a incremental progress, will recognize and understand Cage's plight. To the movie's credit, the scenario never becomes tedious and explores different avenues for it, including humor, tension, excitement, and drama. In each battle cycle, we become invested in seeing how far Cage is going to get, and the movie does a good job of depicting his progress, both on the battlefield map and as a better soldier. The humor arises from his interaction with his fellow humans who aren't in tune with his knowledge, such as the Good-Old-Boy sergeant played by Bill Paxton, who assumes Cage is deserter, and Rita, who, recognizing when they've reached a dead end or Cage is too injured to continue, shoots him in the head to start over.

The movie also generates some poignancy in Cage's plight. There are times when he becomes convinced that no matter how many times he repeats the day, he won't learn how to win, so he becomes torn between giving up and letting the Mimics win or continuing to die day in and day out. There's also the relationship between Cage and Rita, with Cage falling in love with her during his repeated interactions with her but has to start from square one each time (it's probably no coincidence that Rita was also the name of the love interest played by Andie McDowell in Groundhog Day). Fortunately, the movie doesn't become sappy in this regard, and Rita, in a convincingly tough and no-nonsense performance by Blunt, never becomes the cliched damsel who needs to be rescued. Cruise, to his credit, is also pretty good, and I don't know of many stars who would play such as cowardly sleaze ball; true he becomes more heroic as the film progresses, but even then, Rita remains the better, tougher, more determined fighter who has to drag him along.

Clever, exciting, intense, and funny, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the better sci-fi films to emerge out of Hollywood in recent years. In a genre that's become dominated by explosions and special effects, Edge of Tomorrow demonstrates how far a thoughtful script and well drawn characters can go a long way toward making those elements all the more meaningful and memorable.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kindergarten Cop

Kindergarten Cop (1990), directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, raises the question: just who exactly was this movie made for? Determining its target audience is something of a challenge. Despite the title - shown on the DVD cover in cutesy lettering while a frazzled Arnold is overwhelmed by a bunch of rowdy pee-wees - this is not a children's film.  There are some pretty intense and violent scenes that would frighten children, and yet the basic premise of the movie, the brawny man's man forced to act like a girly-man, suggests more family-friendly entertainment that an action-movie audience has zero interest in. It's oil and water, but somehow, it holds together. I can't call it a great film - the plot is too contrived and nonsensical for that - but the presence of Arnold, plus Reitman's steady hand behind the camera, carries a movie that is alternatively funny and thrilling.

LA detective John Kimble (Schwarzenegger) has been trying to nail Cullen Crisp (Richard Tyson), a nasty drug dealer with an even nastier mother (Carroll Baker). When Kimble learns that Crisp's ex-wife absconded with $3 million in drug money and their young son to a small town in Oregon, he and his partner Phoebe (Pamela Reed) head there to locate the ex and convince her to testify against Crisp. The plan is for Phoebe, a former teacher, to work undercover in the kindergarten class to locate the son, but when she falls sick with food poisoning, Kimble must step in and pose as the teacher (good thing this movie was made before everyone was online; otherwise all the parents would be wondering after a quick Google search why a police officer with no teaching credentials would be allowed in a classroom).

What separates Arnold from other brawny action stars such as Sylvester Stallone is his willingness to look silly. Stallone might technically be the better actor, but he takes himself so seriously, but Arnold is unafraid to look foolish, be the butt of the joke, or undercut his tough-guy, macho image. Sure, it can make for some incredibly cheesy and sometimes "bad" movies, but it rarely makes for a movie that is forgettable or boring. Say what you will about Arnold as an actor, but he's smart enough to recognize his limitations and pick projects that turn them into strengths. Such is the case with Kindergarten Cop.

The first act of the film demonstrates Kimble is a determined, effective, crass cop when he pursues Crisp through a mall and then tracks a witness to a crack house ("I'm da the party pooper," he declares after a blast with his shotgun). We also see how he easily little kids annoy him; he demonstrates this on an airplane, breaking a pencil in two and telling the kid who keeps kicking his seat that he'll do the same to him if he keeps it up. Then, Arnold gets to the class and discovers he is ill-prepared for dealing with a bunch of little kids.

These are some wild and crazy kids, and Arnold has no idea, at first, how to control them. They run rampant through the room, steal each other's lunches, climb on desks, hoot, holler, cry about having to go to the bathroom, and make a mess with the art supplies until Arnold can take no more. Sure, it's an obvious setup - the action star confronting normal, everyday problems - but Kindergarten Cop is probably the best of this cheesy cinematic sub-genre. Seeing the interaction between Arnold and these tykes is pretty funny and at times even sweet (especially when Arnold explains to them how a divorce doesn't mean a father no longer loves his children).

Arnold is Arnold, and that's why we love him, but Kindergarten Cop gives him some solid supporting help. My favorite character in the movie is the principal, Miss Schlowski (Linda Hunt). She is literally half Arnold's size, and yet, she is not intimidated by him in the slightest. If anything, he's a bit afraid of her. Penelope Anne Miller is also here as a teacher that Arnold romances and whose son is in his class, and she's pretty good, and if you can't figure out what her secret is, then you clearly weren't reading the plot summary. The kids are obnoxiously cute, but that's kind of the point, and a number of them get moments to shine, most notably the kid played by Miko Hughes from Pet Sematery who likes to announce to class that "Boys have a penis. Girls have a vagina" (Arnold's stone-faced response: "Thanks for the tip.").

Tyson and Baker are effective, respectively sleazy and domineering but equally narcissistic, although this does get back to the central contradiction of the movie. The kindergarten material has scenes of Arnold and the kids bonding, interacting, and being silly, and this is all rather cutesy. But the crime stuff has drug dealing, murders, autopsies, kidnappings, arson, child and spousal abuse, and other material that's definitely not appropriate for children. Again, I ask: who was this movie made for?

I posed that question on my Facebook wall the day after I watched the movie. The responses from my friends included "Ferret Lovers," "Dale Schmidlapp of Sioux Falls, Iowa," and "It's not made for a tumor." My friend Mike wrote, "Schwarzenegger fans who cherish every dumb line that comes out of his mouth," to which I responded "That really should be all of us."

Kindergarten Cop is sort of the epitome of a Schwarzennegger movie. It's loud, violent, cheesy, action-packed, silly, funny, intense, and better made than most people probably give it credit for.  Maybe as a whole, it's not a "good" movie, but it is loaded with entertaining scenes that demonstrate all things about Arnold we love. If the sight of a bug-eyed, gap-toothed Arnold Schwarzennegar screaming at the top of his lungs at a group of kindergartners is not considered entertainment by you, I don't know what else to say.