Tuesday 12 July 2016

Alien 3

Alien 3, the most underrated of underrated SciFi movies, is probably where the Alien franchise should have drawn to a close. Script problems, David Fincher's disavowal of the final product, and poor box office combined to taint it so badly that talented upstarts like Neil Blomkamp feel perfectly justified in bypassing it all together, winning Sigourney Weaver around to the idea of a mad alternate timeline project - some kind of deformed, cloned, 'other' Alien 3.

Well, it could work. Some evidently feel there was more in Ripley than the 'Laurie Stode in Space - Action Mother - Saint Ripley' trinity of the first three movies. But Alien 3 fans will feel there is simply no need to find out. Fincher's movie provided Ripley with a bountiful new world  - with the magnetic supporting cast, claustrophobic location and creature itself realised through a startling new vision. Plus, for a story about a dragon stalking double Y chromosome prisoners about the plumbing of a vast lead furnace, it is an incredibly sensuous film.


Fincher is obsessed with his cast's eyes - those of Newt's corpse, reflecting Ripley; Charles Dance's famous bulging orbs; Charles S Dutton's thick, black-rimmed specs, and of course Weaver's bruised, discoloured pupil after the EEV crash.

Painted in orange and black, you squint through half the film, which is shrouded in a dim "pilot light", shed by rows of candles, flickering bulbs, industrial flares. The Alien reveals itself behind plastic curtains, reflected in surgical instruments, coiled around rotting pipes.

Once again this is rumour control

It's a movie with incredibly diverse sounds: the silence of the med lab; the boom of the furnaces and the roar of the gales outside; echoing, half-heard conversations between prisoners; the ill fated Murphy shrieking a song while he scrapes the ducts clean.

Even the voices are powerful character elements: Clemens' stilted tones speak of affronted dignity, while Superintendent Andrews' piercing Yorkshire bellowing is the personification of the tyrant jobsworth. It's like the cast are trying to outdo each other for vocal performance: Dutton's voice rings with belief; McGann's Golic whispers with trembling madness. In the best Alien tradition even the small parts have magnificent lines (Morse emits surely the best "FUCK!" in cinema history).

It's alright to say 'shit'. It ain't against God


For a slasher movie it's full of surprisingly subtle physical moments: Ripley wiping condensation from the mirror, running her hand over her bald head, touching at her bleeding nose; Clemens dabbing her vein, preparing it for an injection; The whole movie is bruised and bloodied, even the set, where you can almost reach out and feel the grime coating the prison walls, jamming up the works. It's smothered too in seeping fluids; blood from the torn-apart host dog; Alien drool on boots. Interestingly it's also the only movie that allows Ripley a sex life; even if it's with a criminally negligent medical officer who's only just told her to shave her private parts to ward off lice.

we ain't got no entertainment center, no climate control, no video system, no surveillance, no freezers, no fucking ice cream, no rubbers, no women, no guns. All we got here is *shit*! 

Yes, there's a baggy old fifteen minutes in there -an aberration for an Alien movie; one or two gaping plot holes; and one of the worst "ass on the line" exchanges in cinema - but there much to admire here, and on repeat viewing some themes come out that remind us of Fincher's amazing talent.

Principally it's interesting because writers David Giler and Walter Hill seemed to feel that if Ripley's story were to move forward at all, it must also draw to a close. Let's see if Blomkamp can prove them wrong.

Thursday 21 April 2016

They Live (1988)

Google John Carpenter's They Live and worrying indications of a remake surface. You can understand why someone might think about it. The '10s' (or whatever) have passed much like a replayed 1980s - a time of rampant, exploitative capitalism; of oblivious, ostentatious greed; of 'masters of the universe' lording it over a docile, hypnotised mass.

Yet there are striking differences, not least of which is the quality of the most successful films: for big budget 1980s Hollywood absolutely fizzed with creativity - of a kind that we've only recently begun to appreciate. 1988 alone serves as a useful illustration: the top ten grossing films contained only one sequel (Crocodile Dundee 2) and were mainly original comedies (Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, The Naked Gun, Beetlejuice), original dramas (Rain Man) and the original action movie, Die Hard.

A look at last year's top ten makes grisly reading in comparison. It contains only two entirely original movies, the rest being sequels, spin-offs, and franchises - with the top two being both remakes and sequels. This is escapist, and really quite dumb, output. However one interprets the reasons for this slide in creativity - whether Hollywood chasing international markets or the will of our alien overlords - its not hard to imagine observing a Jurassic World poster through the right sunglasses, and seeing the legend:

On that basis alone, the remake is sunk before it begins. The recycling of great ideas encompasses the capitalist skull-creature's attitude to entertainment: People will pay for what they know. They don't want to be challenged, they want a brand they trust. This would make a They Live remake a joke played on itself. And worse. It could only ever be much worse, for some fundamental reasons.

Perhaps it might be considered for a remake if it had dated; but the simple fact is that it hasn't. Sure, there are some mullets, but that's not enough to prompt disbelief. The city is anonymous. There are no landmarks, only timeless oil age settings: shanties, abandoned churches, sound stages, alleys, supermarkets. It looks gorgeous . Cinematographer Garry Kibbe (who also worked on Alien 3 and Stand By Me), has produced a beautiful, rich palette to contrast with the black and white sequences. There is one of those tremendous, throbbing, insistent Carpenter original scores; the 'others' in the film are given life through a simple mask, made more powerful than any CGI by stark, other-worldy monochrome.

They ain't from Cleveland
Slavoj Zizek calls They Live one of the great forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left, for the way it gives flesh to the most creeping paranoiac fantasies of 80s American society; of a secretive, exploitative caste of overlords hiding in plain sight, laughing at our struggles.

Most importantly, Carpenter's film is one of those most powerful kinds of idea - the 'so damn simple I should have thought of it' type. It explored the notion of life as a mass illusion a full decade before The Matrix, and without chosen ones and naff shiny leather, favouring dispossessed construction workers instead - people who say they "believe in America", that they want to "follow the rules", and only reluctantly choose to rebel. It's an exciting, action-packed drama with a big heart and a sense of humour, that seems as bright and fresh now as it did almost thirty years ago.

For now, that seems enough to keep the remake slumbering. But how long before the skull-creatures push it through the system, take the lead roles for themselves: create a horrible parody of a great man's work, made to break our hearts and crush our spirits.

How long? JC alone knows.

Monday 22 February 2016

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

With a creepy-crawly themed column to write for The Engineer, but brain drained of power, watching a trashy bug movie too easily became justified as 'research'.

Spiders stars Bill Shatner, and with higher than expected reviews on the internet - not great, you understand,  but not as abysmal as the same year's similarly titled Empire of the Ants - a viewing turned out to be worth the time. It's a Tremors-esque tale of an isolated town falling prey to unnatural nature, with Jaws overtones thrown in for good measure (complete with 'we can't close down the county fair!' mayor). Sure, watched through modern eyes there is not a single effective scare to be found in the thing, but there are other pleasures.

Kingdom of the Shatners

Bill is fun to watch in just about anything, but it is particularly pleasing to see him decked out in cowboy hat and jeans as lead Rack Hansen (Rack?). Shatner chugs beer, rides horses and sleazes onto his dead brother's wife before spider proceedings even get started, sporting Gillet and lab coat with equal aplomb.

There's also a nice bit of writing around his relationship with Tiffany Bolling's Diane Ashley - his dimwitted efforts at midwestern seduction see her shoot him down again and again, and while this sadly can't last, it helps make Ashley likeable. It helps Shatner too - his desperation is a hoot, even abandoning his own car at one point (along with his dignity) in pursuit of blonde satisfaction.

Kingdom of the Screamers

There's a scene where Bolling is showering and dressing in her motel room; the camera pans away to reveal an arachnid creeping into the drawer of her dressing table. The seasoned viewer expects her to discover the spider, scream, and run for Bill's arms. Instead she shows only detached curiosity, even affection for the twitching, furry, eight legged freak, handling it with calm interest. It is a surprising moment and elevates proceedings.

Besides, the movie provides plenty of other howls to make up for it - probably some of the best is achieved by the crop dusting flyer, who must at least have a claim to the most prolonged screaming sequence in cinema history. The camera just sits there and watches him let rip, as crafty spiders send him spinning into a fatal prang.

The Colby family have one shitty week in this movie

Kingdom of the Stampers

Things only really crumble in the final third, as Shatner and co hole up in a cabin, discover various parties cocooned in silk, and plug holes by which their crawling tormentors come tumbling in. The energy is rather sucked out of proceedings the longer we're in there, and the ridiculousness becomes harder to live with: the spiders cut the phones; a spider is crazy glued to Shatner's cheek. Then the whole narrative descends into a lot of stamping, which is farcical at first, then (worse) a little dull.

Kingdom of the seventies

Apparently there are plans for a remake afoot. Thingaboutchickens will not be seeking it out. Instead the plan is to source more of Shatner's 70s TV movie output, and see what cobwebbed treasures might be found. Stay tuned.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Ghost in the Shell

A reader recently compared Steeple to 1995's Ghost in the Shell, Mamuro Oshii's hugely popular manga adaptation - and this prompted an insomniac 1am viewing, with the lights off and earphones in. 

That's a good way to experience the movie - submerged, isolated, like Major Motoko Kusanagi on one of her diving expeditions, waiting to float to the surface and be reborn. The small hours amplify the movie's prolonged silences, those dialogue free stretches which help Ghost ascend to something like great cinema - witness Batou and Kusanagi's pursuit of a suspect through a derelict district, the only soundtrack footsteps in puddles, the hum of the city, a vast aircraft hovering over abandoned towers.

The dialogue in Kazunori Ito's screenplay is a mix of impenetrable clunky info-dumps interspersed with snappy noir-tone lines, but the weaknesses Ito asks viewers to swallow (which must, after all, be taken with a pinch of translation salt) never detract from the script's ambition, and its skilful interplay of action and ideas. 

Puppet Master:
Memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind

Oshii and Ito's exciting, gun-toting future espionage adventure easily accommodates a thoughtful exploration of identity in a world where memories are manipulated, faked and used as weapons; where consciousness is a ghost haunting a network; where bodies are more than ever disconnected shells, and gender uncertain.

That is quite a trick, and its played out in a beautifully realised world sprinkled with elements of military scifi (got to love that spider tank), intricately detailed city scapes (of brilliant daylight as well as Blade Runner gloom), and a pretty good sense of humour.

Most striking of all are the wonderful score by Kenji Kawai, which grips the viewer's heart from the opening title sequence, and Oshii's astonishing direction. One particular long, closing shot in the final scene is like some unnerving, trickster Van Eyk portrait, slowly revealing itself - one of several moments of truly striking, unique effect. 

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is written by Oshii alone, without Ito. Interesting. It will have to be viewed soon, on some other lonely, late night, laptop screening. Sometimes it's the only way to go.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Blackstar: Bowie's Back

Have to jot something down about David Bowie's ten minute treat, Blackstar. 

H insisted I watch the music video the other day, and I resisted at first, having grown weary of David's recent output. Songs like Where are we now and the Stars are out tonight were a bit...easy, with nothing like the freakery or inventiveness of what defines proper Bowie. No album of his since Outside, in fact, had enticed.

So I'm surprised to find myself singing Blackstar to myself in the shower, on the street, even at work. There's something about it. The video is especially delightful, made by someone who knows how to draw Bowie's freak out from his fashionista's shadow. A good thing too. I'd missed freaky Bowie.

The opening four minutes of the track brings to mind Radiohead: ominous bass, lamenting vocal, twitchy electronic drums. That might put me off in other circumstances - but David's wearing a button-eyed blindfold! Plus, he's giving his all to some beckoning, finger-waggling, shivery choreography of which a Bausch or a Schector would be proud.

But what makes the video really loveable is that the Director, Johan Renck, so loves Bowie's face - not just the eyes, but the whole wonderful, ageing structure, the great arch that spreads from his eagle nose to his mouth. It's all examined in fine detail, and new things are discovered. I'm not sure anyone else has so delighted in Bowie's teeth before. Who knew those ivories could clench into that skull-like, nauseous arrangement? Check him out around 1 minute 20 - it's a treat.

Even better, after four minutes Bowie gets to take off the blindfold and pull on his funky boots, launching into the best song I've heard from him in a decade. While he's at it he struts and poses and wags his finger, and makes you remember the spindly force he can generate with that physique. By the time he grasped his lapels and sang: 'I'm the great I am' I was giddy with joy.

A few people have had criticised the video - I read some snooty comments about the scarecrows - and I have to admit I was hoping to see more of the diamond-skulled spaceman we glimpse tumbling into a black star.

Still, the main theme - the girl with the tail, the dancers, the solitary candle - is a feast for me. I have seen an awful lot of modern dance through H's work, and it's rare that I take such pleasure in it. I suppose it works here because I can easily picture David passing an afternoon stood in his attic, shivering and jerking, communing telepathically with writhing scarecrows on distant worlds.

Welcome back Bowie. It's a treat to be humming your stuff again.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Ian Fleming's voodoo spectre

Halloween was the perfect night to take in Spectre. James Bond always makes a good watch this time of year. He's the closest thing we British have to a Voodoo Loa spirit.

Bond personifies an idea of British power and prestige that is long dead - but the lure of his Church endures. Generations of Priests, from Hamilton to Mendes, summon him again and again, outfitting him with the potent symbols of tux, car and watch. Like a good congregation we assemble in the dark cinema space, hypnotised by his convulsions, his theatre of fire and blood - however absurd and superstitious it may seem in the light of day, however gruelling the 140 minute ritual may be.

As a spirit, there seems no way to kill Bond. Austin Powers weakened him, briefly, by making a joke of his myth - but Bond simply took possession of a new body and rose again, relying more than ever on the compelling power of his sacred songs, dances and modes of service. There are countless "just shoot him" moments in Spectre, but Bond's congregation don't care. These traditions are part of the rite. Villains no longer even require a plan; they are a symbol, part of the service, to be banished by the Bond Loa to the realm of the dead.

Bond's is a vain, violent, trickster spirit, yet his appeal only grows. His mysteries withstand reality, making him our very own island cult, as powerful and notorious as Haiti's.

Can his spirit ever be crushed? Perhaps some misguided future Priest will attempt to change his rites, and break the spell. Maybe his altars will become so obscured by merchandise that the spirit is forgotten, snuffed out.

Perhaps only Baron Samedi can say for sure. He certainly had a good laugh on that train...

Monday 19 October 2015

Revolution, or The NRA Lost

A few words on Season 1 of Revolution, which is a strange beast , where many of USTV drama’s finest qualities compete with the dumbest.

It builds a strong foundation for its story – an America reduced to one great, pre-electric frontier - yet cannot help chipping away at it when it becomes inconvenient. The mood jerks around violently - between a gritty depiction of brutal, lo-tech civil war, and camp, swashbuckling adventure. The writing includes everything from crackling dialogue to eye-rolling, nonsense plot twists. The overall effect is of an intricate house of cards that is painstakingly erected and then smashed apart every few episodes.

Not that this is always a bad thing.

The Lost Firefly

Perhaps its mood swings derive from its wide range of influences, two of which in particular stand out. Firefly hovers over Revolution for most of the first season, as a band of desperadoes led by a devil-may-care, wisecracking antihero fight their way around the fringes of an Old West landscape, populated by a reduced future race. Our lead even has a cause with which to be disenchanted, and a tyrannical government force at whom he thumbs his nose. There are subtle differences, but there’s no doubt Matheison trails Mal Reynolds’ shadow about wherever he travels.

Still, Abrams’ Lost is the tomb most raided here, its presence hanging over proceedings like a tapping column of black smoke. Revolution imitates Lost's flashback device, but with nothing like the discipline, darting all over pre 'blackout' history with too little patience to flesh things out effectively (and in some episodes not bothering with flashbacks at all).

It strives to emulate that pleasing Lost meld of supernatural, archaeological and technological mystery, and does a reasonable job, although it has nothing like Lost’s predilection for denying its audience satisfaction. In fact, Revolution shows its hand incredibly early – probably out of a lack of confidence. Certainly it is in an incredible rush, as if hyper aware of the threat of premature cancellation. Maybe Firefly’s fate played on their minds. (Turns out they were right to be worried)


Certainly Revolution is keen to bring in some familiar faces, feeling the need for star power more than Firefly. Top talent like daughter-slapping, coworker-stabbing, corpse-mutilating Elizabeth Mitchell and priest killing, son-beating, Lionel Ritchie enthusiast, Giancarlo Esposito, are brought in to put bums on seats, and to make us think of other, greater shows.

Still, lead roles are given to fresh faces. Tracy Spiradakos is the highest profile newbie, providing a solid, likable enough lead, helped by writers who know the importance of a good joke, and proper surprises. Baddie in Chief, General Monroe, is a less successful bit of casting. David Lyons occasionally shows he's a strong performer, but he doesn't possess the necessary mass for a character who is supposed to have drawn so many people into his orbit. Once again the impression is that an older, more grizzled figure, with eyes and voice that speak of a history, would have been a better choice.

It’s a similar story with main part, Miles Matheison. Actor Billy Burke has a little more form, having cropped up in 24 (as another Matheson) and in the Twilight movies. Very often he is almost there - yet the feeling lingers that he's too wiry and slight to carry the weight we're told is on his shoulders, or the responsibilities of a revolutionary leader.

Generally the cast’s gleaming teeth and perfect hair can make Revolution rather hard to take seriously. You can’t have it both ways: a world where hot water is hard to come by should not be this gorgeous.

Your darlings' mates

Still, you don’t stick with this show if you’re looking for high-brow entertainment. You watch it for sword fights, snappy dialogue and adventure. Oftentimes it can be a delight to sink into a world where electricity is forgotten magic, popular culture is the domain of the middle aged (“what’s a boy band?” asks a teenager) and a Google executive is a helpless, poverty-stricken fool.

Revolution absolutely hammers along, killing if not its darlings, then its darling’s mates, with abandon. Additionally, there are very few of the dead episodes that plagued a show like Lost; rather each is packed with events: Prison breaks! Drug runners! Turncoats! Amulets! And heaps and heaps of old Holywood swordplay. “You killed my father!” yells each episode. “En Garde!”

And this has its attractions. Coherence goes out the window, but it’s all pretty entertaining. The writers are intent on demonstrating that things are progressing, that it doesn’t intend to hang everything on one increasingly tired mystery.

Tea Party

Instead, they’re keen to expand and explore this world they’ve created. The writers have great fun imagining how the United States might collapse into warring parts, reflecting that US Voter Map - a nation of distinct, warring cultures. Revolution’s new states, the despotic ‘Monroe Republic’ (The North East coast), the part Confederate flagged ‘Georgia Federation’, the barren ‘Plains Nation’, the ‘California Commonwealth’ and amusingly, ‘Texas’, seem a fairly accurate projection of how the US would divide.

The rebellion, an apparently widespread network of goshdarn decent folk, are committed to restoring the Union. And it’s in their story that the show begins to manifest a rather odd ideology.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a show with Revolutionary zeal at its heart would have an uncomfortable relationship with guns. The Limbaughs and Trumps would certainly approve of this future America, where a population is made prostrate to a dictator by being relieved of its weaponry. The message is clearly broadcast throughout the first half of the series: no guns = tyranny. It’s strong enough that an NRA logo in the credits would come as no surprise at all.

Still, halfway through the season the whole 'no-guns rebellion' thing is ditched, so that we can all enjoy some more gunfights.

Even here then, the show doesn’t have the power of its convictions. It’s too intent on ensuring we’re all entertained. That helps the audience forgive the questionable politics, and enjoy the world for what it is: a place where swinging from a chandelier is essential combat training.