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]

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Review: “The Drop” 2.15.15

“The Drop” is the first English language film by Belgian director Michael R. Roskam of the Oscar nominated film “Bullhead” (2011) which garnered a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 2012 Academy Awards. “Bullhead” was a great character study that featured a phenomenal breakthrough performance by Matthias Shoenaerts. The type of actor who after watching that film I just knew it was just going to be a matter of time before the call of Hollywood came coming. Which is interesting because that’s almost the exact same way I felt after I was first introduced to the main actor in this film, Tom Hardy, a relative unknown until he was introduced to the film world in 2009 in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson”. Both are foreign (Hardy’s from the UK, Shoenaerts from Belgium) who have recently started to show up in a lot of American films (though Hardy being introduced to us here stateside much earlier in 2010 in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”). When I first heard of this film I heard while it was in development that it teamed Tom Hardy with another foreign actor who has gained quite a bit of notoriety in the United States this past couple of years and who I happen to like – Swedish born Noomi Rapace (who first played Lizbeth Salander in the Swedish trilogy of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and in other high-profile films like “Prometheus” (2012). Then I found out that it was slated to be directed by none other than Roskam himself, in his English language debut. What sealed the deal for me was that it also reteamed him with “Bullhead” star Shoenaerts, and was based on a screenplay from novelist Dennis Lehane, most notable for his book to screen translations like “Mystic River” (2003), “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), and “Shutter Island” (2010). So with a pedigree of this kind I figured I would be in for something special.

The film introduces us to Bobby (played by Hardy) who in an opening montage explains to us how this “drop” concept works in that basically all of the local bars in Brooklyn are run by the Chechen Mob, who scheduled certain deposits of money at any given bar on any given night. Bobby tends bar at his cousin Marv’s (in the great James Gandolfini’s last performance) who used to own the place until the Mob took over. It becomes clear early on that the Chechen Mob and its messenger, Chovka, pretty much run the entire territory. Especially when on one unsuspecting night 2 men visit the bar in hoods and masks and rob Bobby and Marv of $5,000. Except since the bar really isn’t “owned” by Cousin Marv anymore the money needs to be paid back. It seems like a mere coincidence that Bobby should happen to stumble upon a whimpering puppy in a garbage can shortly after, and is introduced to the woman who owns the home Nadia (played by Rapace), who he forms a sort of bond with after the both discover the pup and both decide to take care of it. That’s until the ex-con, recently released out of prison, mentally ill nutcase Eric comes into the picture (played ruthlessly by Shoenaerts) and claims the dog to be his demanding 10 grand from Bobby or else he will report it being stolen. It is through these many relationships and interpersonal dynamics that as each character is revealed, we are shown a much different side to them as well as their real motivations with one another, than we’re lead to believe up to that point.

While this was another solid entry into the crime-drama genre, it felt a little bit all too familiar to other films of its kind that have come out of the genre (David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” (2007) comes to mind). The story itself is involving enough, as we’re presented with a decent enough story and an above average script. With all the actors involved doing serviceable enough jobs but nobody really sticking out with the exception of maybe Hardy’s character, who’s restrained, solemn, quiet character who we first are led to think might be a little naive, only to change faces about two-thirds of the way into the film in where we’re finally (after much waiting around) able to see his true self. Second to that would be Shoenaerts, who is always a pleasure to see pop up on-screen, and who plays both ruthless and menacing pretty well here. Gandolfini plays well, Gandolfini, who following his work on the hit TV show “The Sopranos” I always felt like it was unfortunate as being typecast into these kinds of roles (similar to how I feel about someone like Ray Liotta post-Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990)). Rapace does a good enough job in the barely fleshed out character she’s written as. As for the story, I felt like it did a fairly decent enough job juggling a number of different characters in the story and for the most part did a clever enough job keeping the audience second guessing, which had my attention until it came to the last half hour or so, at which time I started to get the feeling like it was going to have a predictable outcome to the story. And it did, at least for me anyway. There are character’s involvements into the shady going-ons in the story that are supposed to come as a surprise that really weren’t all that surprising to me. Except for when Hardy’s character Bobby reveals himself to show his true colors. But at that point it all came at just a bit too little too late. This was a fairly good, though as mentioned predictable entry to the genre that I would recommend to fans of it, but I think a lot of other people might be turned off by its familiar storyline and script. Certainly worth a rental but not something that you’re going to want to write home about once its through.

[B-]

Review: “Frank” 11.30.14

This film had been on my radar for quite a while as it had gotten a very strong reception while on the festival circuit this past year. That and almost everything I read for each of the festivals in which it was shown highlighted the fact that Michael Fassbender gives yet another strong performance in a series of Oscar worthy performances like the ones he put in in all three Steve McQueen films – those being 2008’s “Hunger” (how he wasn’t nominated for this was a major oversight on behalf of the Academy), 2011’s “Shame” (where he landed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor), and last year’s “12 Years A Slave” (2013). A film in which he would pick up his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I also thought he’s done some incredibly strong work in “Eden Lake” (2008), “Fish Tank” (2009), “A Dangerous Method” (2011), and “Prometheus” (2012). He almost always seems to pick good roles and is one of the most sought after young actors currently in Hollywood. I also liked the director, Ireland born director Lenny Abrahamson’s, previous film – “What Richard Did” (2012). A film which focused on a Irish teenager who is completely devastated when his once promising life gets thrown upside down. It’s an incredibly sad film which also happens to be a very good character study of a young man’s emotional disintegration following a tragic accident. Within it he showed a certain knack for feeling and emotion that is hard to truly capture in a lot of films from this genre. So given these two aforementioned reasons and the fact that it was also very favorably reviewed. I made it a point to seek it out as soon as it became available.

The story first introduces us to Jon, played by Brendan Glesson’s son, Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring musician type who seems to dislike his mundane computer job. That is until one day when he comes across a band manager, played by Scoot McNairy, who employs him last-minute to fill in for one of his band’s gigs. While at the gig he meets his soon to be band members, two of which include both Clare, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the titular character, Frank, played by Michael Fassbender himself. Frank seems to be some sort of enigmatic and incredibly gifted human being as we see him spout poetry like he’s channeling Jim Morrison of The Doors. Except one could make the assessment early on that Frank is far from your average, or “normal” human being. Frank hides under a blown up head that he wears like a mask, which according to McNairy’s band manager – “he never takes off”. None of the other band members have ever seen the man behind the mask, nor do they seem to care, as they seem to recognize his true genius. Gleeson’s character Jon seems to realize this to and is quick to say yes when they give him the offer to come onboard and join their band full-time. They then travel to the countryside to record a long gestating album. But because Frank is such a perfectionist they wind up over staying and go completely broke and wind up totally out of money. That’s when Jon steps in and offers to save them and the album, while also coming up what he sees as his own ingenious idea of capturing the process or making of the album. And soon after they become well-known across the country, and are asked to come play the prestigious South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. It is here where the story really starts to develop, and both Jon, Frank, and the rest of the band members try to take full opportunity of their first shot at fame.

“Frank” is one incredibly bizarre, subversive, weird, and quirky film even by art house and independent film standards, and plays out like some absurdist tragic-comedy. Though along with that it’s tender, touching, heartfelt, and undeniably human. The first third is like something straight out of a Wes Anderson or Richard Ayoade film. It is strange and whimsical and contains some very well choreographed shots and segments. As we the viewer are transported directly into Frank’s highly unsual world through the eyes of its main character Jon. Some of the musical segments here are downright hilarious, and seem to want to take a satiric stab at what constitutes itself as being indie music these days. It’s while during the recording and capturing of the recording of the album that some of “Frank’s” more funny, clever, and delightful moments take place. Then comes their “calling” by way of the South by Southwest music festival, and the movie takes a dramatic shift in terms of story. Which I can’t say I was really all that big of a fan of. The way in which Austin is portrayed is like something out of Portlandia – where everyone’s a hipster and are drawn out to be slightly cliché. As is with a lot of the indie music scene these days. I thought the whole Austin part of the film, while I understood it in terms of context, was also the weakest and most contrived part about it. Then comes it’s mostly compelling and thought-provoking part of the film, which in my opinion should have come a lot earlier. Even in a 90 minute film. It is here that we learn about the man behind the mask and his mental illness, and this is when the film shines through somewhat, if just for the mere brilliant turn from Michael Fassbender, who in both inside and out of Frank, shows a certain range and depth that only an actor of his caliber could possibly pull off. I would recommend the film solely for Fassbender’s performance alone, as the rest of it is filled with either moments of grandeur, or moments that seemed to ber lifted straight out of other films I’ve seen like it (cough cough “Lars and the Real Girl”). Recommended for fans of Fassbender and for something completely outside of the box. Everyone else might find this movie to be much too strange and bizarre, even for fans of films that are a more acquired taste.

[B-]