Archive for Aliens

Bayou Kill Me

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2021 by dcairns

Fiona’s emotional reaction to Walter Hill’s SOUTHERN COMFORT was so extreme I’m a little scared to show her any other Hill films. From jolting and gasping at each bit of violence, to demanding I hold her hand for the suspenseful climax, this was more the kind of thing I expect from the missus when we’re out at the movies (the loud “SHIT!” during JURASSIC PARK when surrounded by small children was a good moment).

The other reaction I think of is my friend Paul Duane’s, who sees the movie as a brilliant riposte to Boorman’s DELIVERANCE, a film he has big problems with. I can understand those problems — DELIVERANCE’s mountain men can be seen as xenophobic caricatures, unmotivated evil forces embodying a wild otherness in contrast to the citified heroes — but I have a harder time seeing Hill’s film as the antidote.

But let’s consider: Hill’s troop of national guardsmen are a flawed bunch — they’re the cause of their own misfortune, provoking the Cajun backwoodsmen in a number of ways, and escalating the situation at every turn, until it’s too late to back down. True, the two main characters, Keith Carradine and Powers Booth, gradually become very sympathetic, but it’s easy to see their opponents’, admittedly extremely hostile, point of view.

Still, I always felt Boorman was somewhat critical of his macho holidaymakers. They don’t DESERVE their fates, but they seem to be presented as trespassing fools, quite ignorant of the forces they’re trifling with. Boorman is pretty weird — he told Michel Ciment that nobody who was in tune with nature would break his leg the way Burt Reynolds’ character does in this film. I always found that a peculiar attitude: you hit a rock, you break your leg, is the way I see it. But at any rate, Boorman doesn’t wholeheartedly take his heroes’ side, and I never felt he expected us to view the rustic characters entirely through their eyes. Their attitude to the banjo-playing kid is unpleasant: “Talk about genetic deficiencies-isn’t that pitiful?” In fact, he then surprises them with his musical skills, the first of many surprises they’re in for, and the only pleasant one.

Hill and cowriter David Giler go all-in making their national guard goons dumb and nasty, to the point where they risk the viewer disengaging. We were happy to see most of them killed, except it was so unpleasant. And their attitude to their enemy is to persistently underestimate them.

Of course, Hill & Giler set their story in 1973, eight years before its release date, for a reason. It’s a Viet Nam movie that avoids certain controversies by avoiding Viet Nam. But the mistakes/crimes committed by the guardsmen relate quite closely to the mistakes of that war. Going where you have no business going, for a start. Using the locals as a resource, regarding them as subhuman, failing to communicate with them, terrorising them, torturing them. Also, making a war film in which Americans fight Americans is certainly interesting. You could say the film is simultaneously provoking and dodging a series of questions about its meaning.

All this is presented via Hill’s unconventional coverage and cutting, which has a lot to do with the film’s striking intensity. A bear trap is triggered, and snaps TWICE, for emphasis. Hill doesn’t neglect the atmospheric landscape, but he tends to fragment the conversations into disconnected heads — but he maintains coherence. His style seems like a precursor to the later, shittier action films, but looks refreshing now. (You can see Hill’s influence as exec producer on ALIENS, I think, which has a lot in common with this, and the presence of Franklyn Seales also reminds us of Carpenter’s THE THING from around the same time.)

During the film’s last section, the surviving “heroes” wash up in a Cajun town, where the suspense builds around the question of whether they’re safe here. The sequence last long enough that we become pretty sure they’re not, although the prospect of the whole citizenry going 102,000 MANIACS on us is floated then abandoned. In fact, we never see what the reaction of the locals would be to the murderous attacks by the original gang of wild men would be, which is very slightly a cop-out. Having stoked our paranoia about these friendly-seeming but othered folks, Hill leaves the question hanging. Probably they’re fine, but I think it’s best we leave…

SOUTHERN COMFORT stars Wild Bill Hickock; Alexander Haig; Gus Grissom; Jimmy Smith; Nauls; Perfect Tommy; Bufe Coker; Keys; Slug a tough; and Leon Kowalski.

All Action

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2020 by dcairns

Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE (2016) and Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s LET THE CORPSES TAN (2017) could be lumped together as part of a stillborn European cinema movement — the all-action movie. Critics have often — inaccurately — complained that Hollywood action movies are just continuous violence uninterrupted by plot. They do strive to give that impression, but are more likely to be following the 80s Joel Silver/Simpson & Bruckheimer format of an action sequence every ten minutes, and the cause-and-effect narrative motivation is usually very strong. Part of the reason they often feel so simplistic in story terms is that they have a this-follows-that structure, like a treasure hunt, or a guys-on-a-mission thing, and use the three-act structure religiously.

So the idea of taking literally what critics complain about is kind of an interesting one. What would it feel like if everything was an action set-piece. In theory, very intense, but in theory also, you could still tells a complex story and have interesting characters — because as writer David Gerrold once attested, you CAN and SHOULD use action as a CONTINUATION of plot and character, not as a SUBSTITUTE.

Movies usually managed the PLOT part — I remember being struck by an elaborate chase/battle in the piece of crap AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, which left the characters and situation back where they started, so that the whole thing could have been removed without affecting the story one jot. The feeling was unfamiliar, because even the lamest action movies don’t usually make this elementary blunder. Even if the action sequence consists of Character A trying some stunt to resolve their difficulties, and the stunt doesn’t work, and they end up stuck with the same difficulties, some form of story progress will have been made, even if it’s only the discover of “Well, THAT stunt didn’t work.”

David Cronenberg, asked whether his CRASH was not just a series of sex scenes with no story or character, said he didn’t see why story and character couldn’t be developed by a series of sex scenes. The same should certainly be true of violent scenes.

Where most action movies do go wrong is in character development. Everybody becomes an unstoppable killing machine once the conflict kicks off. There is no plausible reason why Benny, the barroom piano player in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, should turn out to be such a skilled gunman (“able to kill four men with three bullets,” as Alex Cox may have put it — I don’t recall the exact figures) other than that Peckinpah is indulging in self-parody. Making different characters differently effective at violence is an obvious tool that’s underused — generally the leading lady is the only one allowed to be frightened or weak, leading Schwartzenegger to proclaim that women are kind of a drag in action cinema. But check out how ALIENS manages to characterize, at least in comic-book terms, a whole bunch of different characters in what is effectively a single protracted dramatic/action situation. And most of them are military folks, and they’re STILL varied.

So, LET THE CORPSES TAN is the one we watched, part of my exploration of Jean-Patrick Manchette. So far I’ve read one of his novels (Fatale), one set of comic-book adaptations (by Jacques Tardi) and seen two movies, the other being Yves Boisset’s FOLLE A TUER. He’s a writer whose work can best be described as “propulsive” and he seems like a good match for this approach.

The film isn’t actually all shooty-gun stuff, but it manages to feel like a single runaway panic attack of mayhem, hallucinations and virtuoso set-pieces. It would be fair to say it never lets up. Fiona, feeling a bit sleepy, disengaged from the “plot” entirely and just let it flow over her — maybe enjoying it more as a result. I was impressed by the style, then let down by the ending. It might seem axiomatic that if your movie is all climax, when it finally stops it will feel anticlimactic, inconclusive, but I could imagine all sorts of solutions that would have made it more satisfactory, chief among them the classic Hollywood trick of setting up a puzzle piece, letting the audience get distracted into forgetting it, and then paying it off at the end when they’re not expecting it. That doesn’t happen here.

The filmmakers have colossal panache and there are techniques here which border on the unique (every filmmaker should see it), and the whole thing looks terrific. But it seems that even with a book to base it on, they’re not great at story. It’s hard to care about anything in this psychedelic charnel-house. It’s good to see Elina Lowensohn again, and her character’s indifference to the chaos around her is intriguing, but we wait in vain for her attitude to change — since change of attitude is a defining trait of characterisation in stories. (Hollywood, with its redemption narratives, insists of wholesale character reform, but I think the minimum of development we’re entitled to is a change of APPROACH by each character.)

The danger of a movie that’s continuous movement is that it could all become paradoxically static. LET THE CORPSES TAN slams into that obstacle at 100mph, and the fact that the impact doesn’t slow it down is part of the problem.

The Truth About Aliens

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on June 11, 2016 by dcairns

aliens-1986-de-james-cameron

“Well, that took a lot of sorting out.”

My late brother-in-law Roddy’s hilarious, one-line encapsulation of ALIENS, delivered immediately the credits started to rise, strikes me as a perfect summary of not only the movie but James Cameron’s entire oeuvre, and those of most other filmmakers to boot. Maybe it’s the ultimate statement on all human existence.

Be that as it may, expect light posting here until the film fest kicks off. Then I should have plenty to say, although I’ll be saying some of it in person as I introduce the films in our POW!!! retrospective.