A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “The Terminator” (1984) 5.3.15

This film officially wrapped up the end of the series of films at one of my local area theaters who showed several Science Fiction classics throughout the month of April. All of which (with the exception of “Blade Runner” (1982) which I chose the original “Alien” (1979) over as the two were playing on the same night) that I got to see on the big screen. Which has become a new passion of mine in revisiting some of the older classics for the first time in the theater. I’ve added several Sci Fi classics to my “bucket list” and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite some time. In this past month plus some I saw Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), as mentioned above, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), James Cameron’s (x2) “Aliens” (1986), and the recently released “Ex Machina” (2015). Alex Garland’s cerebral head trip which wound up being the best Sci Fi film I’ve seen since Duncan Jones’ groundbreaking “Moon” (2009).

I have to admit the “Terminator” franchise is one of my least favorite Science Fiction ones as I remember watching them as a kid, and while I admired the second one, I really never could find myself getting into any of the subsequent sequels. Similar to how I felt and still feel about the “Alien” franchise after its second installment. That and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even really remember seeing the first “Terminator” except for maybe bits and pieces when I was a just a young lad. And in thinking back my reason for not doing so probably had a lot to do with the fact that I saw the films out-of-order, with the second one first, then the third, and fourth. Since I didn’t much care for parts 3 or 4 seeking out the first one wasn’t necessarily high on my list. At least in my more formative years. Though since then, in becoming a student of film, I’ve come to learn that the original is highly regarded in many film circles to be one of the all time classic entries into the Sci Fi genre. So I thought to myself I should make it a point to check it out, now that I look at films analytically, to see if it earns the moniker of being up there with the all time greats like some of the ones mentioned above.

James Cameron’s debut film is a dark, dirty, post-apocalyptic vision of the future that seems very much influenced by the many films of the genre that came before it. Films like John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) both seem like direct influences on it in terms of look and style. Except where those films were much brainier, Cameron seems to change the playing field a bit here. Not really caring much for character or plot, he appears to be much more interested in style and sheer entertainment value. As there’s not really much on display here in terms of any kind of narrative. What’s different, and done quite I should add, is his ability to bring an almost new kind of kinetic energy to the genre. His ability to engage the audience while keeping the cat and mouse plot moving along from scene to scene is really the film’s greatest strength. In relation to some of the other big-budget pics of the genre, this film in especially feels more sadistic, but with a certain playfulness about it with its splatter-violence and singular vision that I call “cyber punk”. In terms this vision I speak of it breaks new ground in the genre with its seeming admiration for over the top violence and energy. Something I hadn’t been privy to of some of the more contemporary films of the genre up to that point in film history. It’s maybe the most visceral and action packed genre picture for its time.

There’s also the flat-out bad acting but which actually suits itself well to a story that doesn’t seem one bit concerned with how the actors come across but based much more around visual style and hyper violence. Arnold (Ahnuld) Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton read their lines like they’re reading off of a teleprompter (though to his credit Schwarzenegger has maybe only a dozen or so lines in the entire film). The best thing about it acting-wise was the other cyborg sent from the future played by Michael Biehn, who gives some life into what is otherwise a pretty laughable script. Though at times I felt like it reveled in the irony of its poorly acted script. The Schwarz seems perfectly cast as his bland facial expressions, thick accent, and Frankenstein body language suits itself rather well to the role of a menacing cyborg. Hamilton on the other hand is more of a feast for the eyes, as she clearly seemed to be cast more for her gorgeous looks (lucky you Cameron) than for her acting chops.

What I will conclude by saying, is that while “The Terminator” is considered to be a master work and essentially the platform for starting James Cameron’s career. It also marks the turn of big budget Sci Fi going for a more action packed, style over substance, entertainment thrill ride approach. Which for the most part it succeeds in doing. Its influence is embedded in several Sci Fi films that proceeded it. As did its kitschy one-liners (“I’ll be back”). But for all of its nicely looking visual splendor and style it feels devoid of the brainer elements that I’ve learned to love from the genre. So for that mostly personal reason, it wound up being fun to watch and critique. But in terms of its place as being considered one of the “the greatest” Sci Fi films to me it barely makes the cut. That aside, I could still sit back and both admire and understand why its considered such an important work for its time.

[strong B]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Alien” (1979)

It is very difficult to talk “fact” when it comes to film. However when it comes to Science Fiction, one could say the closest thing to being fact is that Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), and Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) are the three most influential films to have come out of the genre of all time. And I would argue that all three of them are also the best. But when it comes to using the term best in relation to film, well, that’s a matter of opinion of course. What I will say is this – the fact that I got to see James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986) and its predecessor within the same month, on the big screen no less, is maybe by a mere act of god. But even more importantly, that I came to the realization after seeing both screenings, of how incredibly influential both films are. Not just in terms of their importance in film history, but in how much of an impact the “Alien” franchise has had on our culture and society as a whole. When I saw “Aliens” (1986) a little under a month ago now, I was awestruck by the vast number of people who came out to see a movie that was made almost 30 years ago now. I remember casually getting to the 750-person capacity theater 45 minutes early thinking that I would be one of the first in line. It turned out there were probably 100+ people in front of me. The movie eventually sold out, mind you again this is for a theater that seats 750 for a film that was made almost 30 years ago. It was an experience that’s difficult for me to put into words. It all felt so all inclusive. Like I was an integral part of something special. Which is truly one of the main reasons why I enjoy going to the movies so much, to be a part of that kind of experience.

As was the case with tonight’s screening of “Alien” (1979). Granted I showed up late (if you want to call a half an hour “late”) and was more shocked this time than I was the previous time to see the sheer amount of people in line to see it. This time being at a much larger venue, at Portland’s Empirical Theater which is within our city’s science museum, and seats about a 1,000. Well even arriving a half an hour early I was a few hundred people back. The scene there looked like something more akin to a big rock concert than it did to see a film that was made 36 years ago now. But what struck me even more about it was the age range by the looks of the people waiting in line. Everyone from teenagers to people my age to older adults stood in line at their chance to catch this film live on the big screen. Many of whom like me, were experiencing it for the first time. What’s so significant about this and why I feel the need to point it out is that movies really are timeless, and to see such a film with such a large audience that has made such a lasting imprint on our culture was nothing short of amazing. It finally came time to pile in when the usher announced by megaphone (there really were that many people in line) it was time to be let in. People scrambled in like cattle and to be honest, I just felt lucky enough to have gotten a seat. I buckled myself in as the house lights went down, which conjured up a sense of excitement that only a film of this caliber could possibly summon.

“Alien” is such a landmark achievement in terms of its impact on the film (as previously mentioned in my “Aliens” review – the original “Alien” is both my favorite Sci Fi and Horror film of all time). And to sum up why I love this film so much in a single paragraph is almost next to impossible. What I will say is that Ridley Scott’s film revolutionized the Science Fiction format. A genre which, up to that point, was mostly reserved for cheesy B movies and disaster flicks that came out of the 1950’s and 60’s. What Scott was able to do was resurrect a genre by first adding a high production value, which allowed for big-budget visuals, a breathtaking set design, and one of the most realistic creatures that still to this day, ranks up their with the best (and certainly one of the scariest). The first entry is essentially a meta exercise, perfectly blending and executing both equal parts horror and Sci Fi. The way in which Scott establishes tone and setting is simply a marvel of a feat. He creates a sense of isolation (hence the film’s tagline – “in space no one will hear you scream”) and a foreboding sense of dread and nerve-wracking suspense as the space crew Nostromo encounters some sort of unfamiliar space craft and its subsequent scenes, are all nail-bitingly tense in their execution. Scott rather deftly tracks the camera through every inch of the space craft’s corridor which feels like that of a stretching rubber band. The crew then explores the suspicious space craft. Which is where it really grabs a hold of you about a third of the way in and never lets up. It all starts with John Hurt’s character falling into what appears to be a womb of some sort, filled with egg-like pods. A face-hugging parasite latches on to his helmet, which at that point you get the sense that something is seriously about to go wrong. And it does. Much to the chagrin of Lt. Ripley (played by the first real female action hero in cinema – Sigourney Weaver) Ian Holm’s character forgoes protocol to quarantine the victim and lets him back on board. The scenes following, or shall I say “the scene”, is just as incredibly terrifying, if not more, every single time I see it. You could literally hear the audience gasp as many people like myself, seemed to know and prepared themselves for what was to come…

It’s at this pivotal moment and iconic scene that virtually the rest of the film takes off. Scott produces genuine thrills and scares as the film essentially becomes a game of cat and mouse, with the alien preying on the rest of the crew. And each time we see the beast’s double set of extending jaws, the movie becomes more and more terrifying as each unfortunate victim befalls resulting in one of the more fulfilling climaxes in cinema history.

The film’s true greatness lies within its ability to be both undeniably scary, nerve-wracking, but even more importantly, as a piece of thought-provoking art. The Oscar nominated visual effects by the late H.R. Giger are both highly original and unique. That and unlike its sequel, we hardly ever get to see the actual alien, except only for a few brief moments at a time, and it’s both terrible and beautiful when we finally get to see it in its full form. Another key important thing to note is that is was solely responsible for launching its then unknown actress Sigourney Weaver into an overnight star and film icon. I could go on and on and on about the many things I love about this film, but I don’t think I could possibly do it justice. What I will say is with each viewing, especially this one, given that it was on the big screen with a house full of “Alien” fans like myself, it acted as a reminder of why I hold this film in such a high regard. But even more so, it’s a glimpse into the past at one of the most seminal and important works that would go on to influence generations to come.

[A+]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Aliens” (1986) 3.28.15

People ask me all the time what my favorite horror film ever is. I tell them “the answer is easy, Alien“. Then they’ll ask me what my favorite Science Fiction film is of all time is and I’ll provide them with the same answer. When people ask me what my favorite action movie of all time is my answer has always been the same – Aliens. Then people will often times ask me what my second favorite Science Fiction film of all time is and again, my answer to them is always the same – Aliens. I hold the first two Alien films in the same kind of regard that most people hold Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part 1” (1972) and “The Godfather Part 2” (1974) in. What’s so great about the first two “Alien” films is their ability to combine different genres and craft them so perfectly in the way that they do. The first “Alien” (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, and the second, “Aliens”, directed by James Cameron, couldn’t be more different from one another. So that’s why much like the first two “Godfather” films, you’ll find that you meet people who are almost split down the middle or completely divided as to which one they like better. Because they’re both really just so goddamn good. What the first film did so well and why it was and still is so revolutionary for its time is was because it took what was otherwise a cheap genre of the time – the “scary monsters in space” one, and gave it new life adding in exquisite cinematography, a high budget production value, and a mood, feel, and tone that was both downright nerve-wracking and completely terrifying. Director Ridley Scott produced genuine thrills and made incredibly tense dramatic use of the film’s claustrophobic corridors. The first “Alien” also had both an originally unique and brilliant set and art direction along with Oscar-winning visual effects, with one of the most creatively designed looking creatures in genre film created by the late, great H.R. Giger. It also gave birth to star Sigourney Weaver, making her in almost international icon and feminist leader overnight. About a year ago I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to see the original “Alien” on the big screen for the first time, and I have to admit my experience with it that particular night, seeing it among a sea of movie buffs and fans like myself was really something hard to express in words. It was as if I was seeing it for the first time in the way that it was always supposed to be seen, in a packed, dark theater that was so quiet you couldn’t hear a pin drop. A perfect (and really the only) way to see a film in my opinion. My experience that night was so great and left such a lasting impression, that I vowed to myself that I would jump at the opportunity to see the second one under a similar setting if I was ever given the chance to.

Well lucky for me there’s a local theater up the street from where I live that specializes in showing A+ quality prints of older films. To give people like myself and others a chance to see some of their favorite films that they were maybe too young to see or in a lot of cases, weren’t even born yet a chance to see some of their favorite pictures on the big screen for the very first time. And boy do people come out of the woodwork and pile into the theater in droves when these events take place. I’ll put it this way, I was taken aback when I showed up a full half hour before showtime, to a theater that seats almost 1500, and found a line around the block of people waiting to get tickets. Luckily I had got there in enough time, because by 20 minutes before the movie started, I looked around and saw that the theater looked completely sold out. Mind you for a movie that was released in 1986 almost 30 years ago. After a bit of discussion with a fellow film aficionado like myself about the reason why we were there, which was essentially the same, to see one of our all time favorite films on the big screen, the house lights went down and the movie started which was met by quite a bit of applause by its 1500 person capacity theater.

James Cameron’s sequel, which also happens to be arguably one of cinema’s greatest ones, picks up where the first one lets off and finds Lt. Ellen Ripley (Weaver) being recovered in the space craft pod that she put herself in at the end of the first. It’s 57 years later, and Ripley is unfrozen by a military-like group of explorers. This so-called team, led by a great supporting cast of Michael Biehn (who the audience applauded for when his name came up in the opening credits), a young scene stealing Bill Paxton, the iconic Lance Henrikson (who plays the team’s only android – like Michael Fassbender in the prequel “Prometheus” (2013)), and the slimy, lecherous Paul Rieser, who plays the sort of corporate leader in charge whose agenda may be much different from that of the others. An agenda which includes Ripley being sent back to the former colony from the first one with a rag-tag group of soldiers to see what happened to the planet and investigate to see if it still contains any of its former inhabitants. If Ridley Scott’s first entry was more of a haunted house space frightener, James Cameron’s sequel is much more visceral, relentless, and furiously intense. More akin to an action packed thrill ride in which we get to see a lot more of the creatures that come in at about the half hour mark and stay for the entire rest of the film in one suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining scene after the next as the team is confronted with each of the many creatures. Culminating in one of the most exhilarating climax’s and ending sequences in maybe any movie I can think of as Lt. Ripley fights off the mother of the species. As the movie ended and the credits rolled it sounded like every single person in the entire audience was clapping. Which to me is one of the best reasons to see such a beloved film such as this one on the big screen. As you can feel like you’re transported to another place and time almost 30 years ago where one can only imagine the audience might have had this very same reaction. A reaction of almost everyone leaving totally satisfied with a buzz in the air that at least in the humble opinion of this writer, is very hard to find outside of one of our last remaining experiences that can be collectively shared by a group of people in real time. And to me this film is one of the all time greats and yet another fine example of the everlasting power of cinema.

[A]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Interstellar’ 11.8.14

In what I considered to be the second biggest movie release of the Oscar season behind the already released David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, the just released “Birdman” by director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” (released next week), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming “Inherent Vice”. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” was, well, just like any other Christopher Nolan film in terms of my anticipation for it which was very high. I remember when thinking back to the build up and buzz of his 2010 mind bender “Inception” and seeing a preview for it during the 2009 Oscar season; a full 7 months before its release date, and from that point forward I tracked its every move. From filming, to post-production, to the months that Nolan’s films get marketed (due probably because he is the most successful director post-2000 and one of the only directors (truth) that doesn’t need to pitch a project to a studio. His films are so profitable they will just write him a blank check right then and there on the spot). But what’s even more important to point out, is that not only is Nolan the most bankable director currently working in the business, but he’s also the most artistically inclined commercial director in the business (think early to mid era Steven Spielberg). His films, even in being big budget studio films, are always something much more. Films that are always challenging comes to mind if describing a Christopher Nolan film. He basically reinvented the indie landscape with his 2000 game changer “Memento”. A film that was just as influential on the independent film movement of the nineties than was say Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1995). His follow up, the surprisingly mostly under seen and overlooked 2002 film “Insomnia”, which was a bona fide crime thriller that was equal parts mystery and suspense. Then came his widely successful Batman/Dark Knight trilogy which were and still are solely responsible for changing the superhero/comic book landscape. What’s so amazing about those films is they set the bar so unbelievably high for every superhero movie to follow. There’s a reason why the sheer quality of the genre became better after the Nolan Batman films. It’s because everyone who took a stab at the genre following it used it as a template in trying to hopefully make a film like it. That and he made the trilogy dark and challenging. Something that had been missing from the genre in the past. Enter 2010 and Nolan is back with a film that he somehow managed to squeeze in-between the second and third Dark Knight installments, “Inception”, which as mentioned above, was a mind bender that proved that Nolan could make genre films that were just as successful outside of the superhero/comic book box, and once again, make something for the audience that was both thought provoking and challenging. A trademark of all of Nolan’s work. Skip 2 years after his last Batman installment, in which he chose to hang the towel after, and we have a new Nolan film. One that promises to bring us to mankind’s next step in the universe, while also hinting that it could be our last.

“Interstellar” first introduces us to Matthew McConaughey’s (in yet another great performance) character, Cooper, a former engineer and test pilot who now is a widowed family man with two young children and who lives on a plot of land in rural America as a farmer who tends to his crops as a means of survival. A wind/sand storm hits, and within it there’s a revelation to both Cooper and his family that the dust that remains on the floor in its aftermath presents them with some sort of gravitational irregularity because of the pattern of its arrangement. This leads them to a NASA compound run by Michael Caine’s character. He talks of some kind of wormhole that is circling around Saturn, and states that the only way mankind is going to be saved by the growing weather and agricultural nightmare that has befallen on them is to travel through this wormhole to set up new worlds in other galaxies. As life on earth as we currently know it won’t survive much longer. Cooper meets Caine’s daughter (played by the not always consistent but serviceable Anne Hathaway). Cooper is in charge to lead this new mission, while being employed to carry out another mission to find out what happened to another spacecraft who made an attempt at their same mission to travel through the wormhole many years earlier and merely vanished in space. Cooper takes on the mission, much to the chagrin of his daughter, knowing that it might be the single most important thing to help save mankind. Both he, Hathaway’s character, a geographer played by the under appreciated and underused Wes Bentley, a physicist, and 2 robots who’s names I can’t remember at the moment, but who both play an integral role, as they embark on their space adventure.

The film is a bit of an over-stuffed hodgepodge of different ideas and existential themes that are packed within its almost 3-hour run time. Now I don’t mean this to necessarily be a bad thing. It’s just of all of Nolan’s films to date this one feels the most substantial and headiest. Certainly his most challenging. For me personally, I always value substance over style. Which this movie has both of. However, I found it difficult to follow at times and dare I say almost found it too challenging. There was so much going on within the narrative that I often times was wondering if my mind wasn’t working hard enough that the movie demanded of me. Or if it was just something that was over my head. Whichever really was the case, I let that thought go about a third of the way through, around the 2nd act, which is when the space travel truly begins. And like the great Science Fiction films that have explored space and beyond. Films like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Philip Kaufmann’s “The Right Stuff” (1983), Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), Danny Boyle’s 2007 “Sunshine” (which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to), and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013), it brings its own unique approach to how we look at space travel. Once Cooper and crew reach space, they go through a series of events that contain some of the most dazzlingly stunning images I have seen put onto film since Terrence Malick’s “creationism” sequence from “The Tree of Life” (2011). The first descreption of it that came to mind as I walked out of the sold out theater afterwards was a “visual splendor”. Nolan and his crew of special effects experts do a fantastic job at presenting us with some of the most spellbinding visual effects I’ve seen since James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009). Besides the visual grandeur of the whole thing, it also contains a pretty authentic feeling and emotional subplot involving unforeseen time passing and Cooper’s 2 children, played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain, both of whom are always superb as they are here. In what at points almost falls into over-dramatic territory, Nolan and his writing partner brother John seem to think to know their audience is much too intelligent to allow that to happen. So besides the gorgeousness of the whole proceeding, this subplot was what I found to be the second standout. It tugs at the audience’s heartstrings without feeling contrived or trite. Lastly, which was my one biggest criticism of the piece, and one in which I think I hinted at above, was that it felt a bit overwrought in the ideas and themes in which it presents. Like it could have maybe been dumbed down a bit (and I almost never say that about a film) as I can imagine a lot of people who see this film, like me, are going to be slightly confused at times by the sheer amount of material and shifts in story that go on within it. I can imagine a lot of people will preach knowing what they thought the film was about but having a hard time articulating what exactly that is. But like I also hinted above, if you can leave out that element of trying to follow every little shift in the story or scientific jargon that is spoken (which there is quite a bit of), you should find yourself sitting back and marveling at the eye candy and incredibly innovative space thrill ride that only someone of Nolan’s caliber of filmmaker can take you on.

[B]

*Also, as an added disclaimer – I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing this on the big screen. To not do so would be doing yourself a big disservice.