Archive for Alien

Borderline

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2021 by dcairns

It’s a shame about EXTREME PREJUDICE (1987). As with SOUTHERN COMFORT, the cutting is terrific, the action is well staged (minimal but telling use of slomo), but it’s not as engaging or efficient as a story. Maybe the combination of Hill and John Milius, who’s credited with coming up with the story, is too much macho bullshit for me. (Curious that for a long time Hill and Milius, “right-wing anarchists” — libertarians? — were very popular with liberal UK critics, at least until Milius took it all too far with RED DAWN, a deeply silly film). But there’s also quite a bit wrong with the way the movie interweaves its plot threads, and the central one just isn’t very interesting.

The subplot, which comes on like the main plot and is consistently more interesting, is the illicit activities of a CIA squad consisting of men officially dead, and whose leader (Michael Ironside, yay!) has gone rogue and is using his men to destroy evidence of his corrupt dealings with drug lord Powers Boothe (astonishing, an underused cinematic resource). The main plot is the old one about the cop and crook who grew up together. Here, Boothe is paired with Nick Nolte as a Texas Ranger (the setting is Tex-Mex border) but the trouble is their relationship doesn’t change from beginning to the end, and also Nolte for some reason is playing it like Judge Dredd, emotionless and flat. The two antagonists also share a girlfriend, Maria Conchita Alonso, but she has nothing to do except be objectified. Hill heroines mainly fall into two camps, the leading ladies with unsatisfying stereotype roles, and the characters written as guys in the first draft who he changes into girls — ALIEN’s Ripley, written as a guy by the original scenarists, is the most famous example, but Amy Madigan in STREETS OF FIRE is another. These gals are pretty exciting though it’s occasionally apparent that they’re the writer in drag.

To celebrate Nolte’s recent weight loss (a result of kicking the booze, I think) the movie has him fight a lot of fat guys. One is even called Chub.

These two stories butt up against each other throughout, usually by means of violent action, which is as impressively ouchy, at least at first, as the mayhem of SCOMFORT. But they resolve messily — the Wild Bunch last stand of the CIA guys is a spectacular climax, but it’s followed by Nolte versus Boothe which is tedious by comparison, and the two don’t sufficiently affect or complicate one another. There’s a fun early turn by Rip Torn in perpetual sneer (“State legislature, shit! Only thing worse than a politician is a child molester.”) but he gets taken out of the picture in bloody fashion much too soon, leaving Nolte to interact, or inter-nonreact, with faceless subordinates for the rest of the show.

But the airport scene at the start, setting up the CIA good/bad guys, is one for the books. I haven’t seen Hill’s later westerns but I have BROKEN TRAIL on DVD. Guess I’ll take a look.

Mars Needs Work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2018 by dcairns

De Palma’s MISSION TO MARS is the nearest thing to a De Palma film De Palma doesn’t like in DE PALMA. De Palma De Palma De Palma. But it’s not clear that he doesn’t think it’s a masterpiece along with all his other films, he just didn’t enjoy making it. All those special effects, taking forever.

The stuff on Earth is very recognizably De Palmaesque, with long Steadicam shots and so on. The stuff in space is more anonymous, I suspect because effects weren’t quite at the stage where he could rove about as he liked. There’s one very good spacewalking suspense bit, subsequently borrowed and improved upon in GRAVITY, and there’s a weirdly counterproductive Morricone score, and too many scenes where actors slowly, casually do things they should be doing in a desperate hurry. I can’t quite account for that. De Palma does talk about how he likes slow set-pieces with few sound effects, to make room for the music, but this is the only film of his where whole scenes are dragged out that really NEED to be played fast.There’s a certain class of actor who play astronauts, isn’t there? THE RIGHT STUFF established Ed Wood Harris (WTF?) in particular as NASA’s representative on Earth, so he turns up in APOLLO 13 and as the voice of Ground Control in GRAVITY. APOLLO 13 then brought Gary Sinise into the fold, and here he is again. Matt Damon is a space guy in INTERSTELLAR and a different one in THE MARTIAN. If you’re making ALIEN or something you can cast anyone, but for realistic or near-future spacey shows there’s this limited pool.

Sinise is his old reliable self here, Connie Nielsen is lovely — you’d want somebody who smiles like that on a space mission — Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle add character, There’s this guy, Jerry O’Connell, who’s like the comedy relief astronaut — you expect him to whip out a harmonica. I didn’t enjoy him much but by the end I kind of dug him. There’s an unbelievable exchange where they’re looking down from space at the Martian base they’ve lost contact with, and he gets excited because there’s only three graves, so one guy must be alive, right? Then it’s pointed out that the guy probably couldn’t bury HIMSELF.But it’s quite diverting — of course the effects have dated curiously (I haven’t looked at TITANIC lately, but those seas NEVER looked real) but not offensively. And then it all goes to shit at the end when the CGI alien shows up. “We just ran out of money,” De Palma hints, though he doesn’t specifically list the ET as a casualty of this. It’s one cheap-ass-looking alien. The decision to do a bunch of things that could only be done with CGI — which seems to make sense, on the face of it — results in something that looks like nothing else but CGI. It should have been played by a human in prosthetics, maybe a tall African like in ALIEN, but I guess this was too soon for CGI enhancements to actors — they could just about erase Sinise’s legs in FORREST GUMP but Frank Langella’s subtractive scar in THE BOX was a ways away. Was a ways aways away.

There’s just not enough of De Palma’s bravura technique and obnoxious personality in this. BLACK DAHLIA looks kind of anonymous too — but I recently acquired REDACTED and PASSION so I’m curiously about those. Maybe it’s time for a De Palma Week, or would my skepticism get wearying?

Dynamic Conflict

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2018 by dcairns

I got Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure for Christmas, and it’s quite good — one of the best of these damn screenwriting books. I can’t bear Syd Field’s books, the man thinks “sets up” is one word, spelled “setsup” like “catsup.” True, he has slightly more screen credits than Robert McKee, but no feature film ones, and his TV writing credits are for a show he produced: in other words, he gave himself the job.

O’Bannon actually wrote movies, and had the debilating health problems to prove it. This is from Michael Wiese Productions, who do good film books by actual filmmakers, and it shares a melancholic quality with editor Sam O’Steen’s Cut to the Chase: it’s been published post-mortem, with much work from other hands to make a book of it. O’Steen had his wife, a fellow editor, to interview him and prompt his memories, O’Bannon has co-author Matt R. Lohr. I’m going to go ahead and blame him for getting the plot of King Lear wrong.

But the selling point here is O’Bannon’s unique take on the three-act structure. I’m with actual writer Ed Solomon on this one — reading screenwriting books before you start writing will just do your head in. If you write something decent, the books can sometimes be useful to help tighten it and make it work better. I’d encountered O’Bannon’s theories before in an interview he gave to a screenwriting magazine. There’s not much new here, certainly not enough to fill a book, but NONE of these manuals have enough in them to fill their page count. All you can hope for is that the good stuff will actually be good.

O’Bannon’s chief innovation is to better define the Act Two Curtain — in his formulation, at this point, “the doors close” — before this approximate three-quarter mark, leading into the climax, the protagonist and antagonist could theoretically have walked away from their conflict (yes, as always, the assumption is that this will be a conflict-based narrative: see Mackendrick’s On Film-Making for a bracing alternative). After this curtain, the characters are locked in to their struggle. Sometimes one has committed an act so awful towards the other than vengeance is now imperative; sometimes, one has been revealed to pose an existential threat to the other. I guess in JAWS, when the boat starts to sink, Sheriff Brody is committed to seeing the thing through.

In that same old screenwriting mag I read another movie hack claim that DIE HARD was all third act from about fifteen minutes in, but O’Bannon’s theory disproves this nicely. It may seem to be all climax, but just where a Second Act Curtain should be, our hero is told he can relax and leave it to the FBI now, and then discovers the terrorists are going to blow everyone up and ONLY HE CAN STOP THEM. Classic O’Bannon, though written by three other guys.

One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories. One successful guide uses THE KARATE KID as its paragon. This alone should make us skeptical. But if you’re interested in screenwriting, test O’Bannon’s theory against movies you love. I might try this in a follow-up post.

O’Bannon’s other best point is where he blasphemously trounces the idea that Acts One, Two and Three should end or begin on a specific page, or a specific minute of screen time. He points out that the audience doesn’t know what time it is. He’s right. I think we DO get a sense, when we’re watching a film, that This has been going on a long time and we still don’t know what it’s about, when the first act is a long time in reaching its curtain. But we can get that feeling in fifteen minutes, if the first act is really boring, as I just did with a screener I was viewing for Edinburgh Film Festival, a would-be horror movie that began with half an hour of conversations. And sometimes we can get to the end of a film without once having that feeling, and STILL not know what the film was about, as I did with another movie, a thoroughly convincing and beautiful art-house job.

The surest ways to avoid activating the audience’s internal clock is to tell an engaging story or unfold a tapestry of cinematic beauty. And let the curtains fall where they will.

Dan O’Bannon co-wrote DARK STAR, ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.