From the Archive: Alien 3

fincher

The debut of the new Netflix series Mindhunter has brought a fresh wave of attention on filmmaker David Fincher, who seems a little less glum than usual as he makes the promotional rounds. The accompanying newsy tidbits — he almost directed the Deadwood pilot! he thinks Marvel movies don’t allow for much directorial creativity! — and fresh analyses of his visual style have been peppering my various online feeds for the past week. That seems as good of impetus as any to dust off my original review of his feature directorial debut, Alien 3. The sequel had a bizarre, tortured trip to the multiplex, evidenced by a teaser trailer that promised an entirely different plot than the one found in the film Fincher delivered to the confused indifference of moviegoers. (It opened behind the second week of Lethal Weapon 3 and was out of the Top 5 two weeks later.) This review was written for my campus radio station, during the summer my cohort and I were putting together roughly two-minute reviews that were dropped in periodically during the daily programming.    

Alien 3 is certainly not a film that can be faulted for a lack of ambition. The third installment of the film series that focuses on Lieutenant Ellen Ripley’s confrontations with murderous alien creatures mixes religious overtones and death acceptance in with the mayhem. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a better Alien.

This time out, Ripley has crashed on desolate prison planet populated by lifers who have turned to religion to forget their messy histories. It’s supposed to be a temporary, uneventful stay, but an alien has along and begins tearing apart the incarcerated inhabitants, forcing Ripley into battle again, this time without advanced weaponry.

Sigourney Weaver again displays her mastery of the character, leaving no doubt as to why her performances in the series have been even more memorable than the special effects and alien creatures. This is especially evident in the scene that reveals the location of “the most terrifying place of all” that they movie ads promised the creature would be hiding in.

Also very good is Charles S. Dutton, on the Fox TV series Roc, playing a no-nonsense inmate with strong determination and devotion the religion he’s adopted. The rest of the characters are little more than soulless soldiers, bickering with each other as they face this terrifying threat. They’re similar to the groups in the first two films, but with less life.

First time feature director David Fincher has a keen eye for the memorable image, but falters on the storytelling level. He relies too heavily on quick edits and not the story itself to keep the film moving along. The exciting visuals just aren’t enough to prevent Alien 3 from being an uninteresting film.

2 stars, out of 4.

Laughing Matter — Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, “One Leg Too Few”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I am currently in the midst of listening to Marc Maron’s interview with Tracey Ullman on his podcast, WTF. While Ullman is generous and gracious throughout, she reserves her highest praise — thus far, anyway — for Peter Cook, quickly and emphatically calling him a genius.

For most in the U.S., Cook’s reputation probably extends no further than his brief but memorable (to say the least) turn as “The Impressive Clergyman” in The Princess Bride, those in his homeland undoubtedly view him with more reverence, thanks to his work with Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, and, most notably, Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe. I don’t claim to be a true and proper scholar of comedy, but I am prepared to say that the sketch “One Leg Too Few,” featuring an eager actor arriving for an audition, is one of the best sketches ever delivered, practically perfect in conception and execution.

If nothing else, there are few better, smart entries in the pantheon of set-up-and-punchlines than the one that begins “I’ve got nothing against your right leg.”

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Playing Catch-Up — Compliance; The Bad Sleep Well; The Devil’s Bride

compliance

Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012). Based, incredibly enough, on a true story, Compliance shows the ugly susceptibility people have in the face of authority, even when those giving the orders have done nothing to prove they deserve to be followed. On a busy, stressful Friday night, a fast food restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a person claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy). The man on the line says a teenaged employee (Dreama Walker) stole money from a customer. She needs to be brought into a back room to be interrogated and strip searched, he instructs. What follows is an assault of escalating degradation, all perpetrated with innocent obedience by people who believe they are listening to law enforcement. Even the film’s most lurid details are based on fact, but it sometimes pushes so drastically far into implausibility that writer-director Craig Zobel would have been better off omitting the worst of it. Although Walker spends most of the narrative in different states of undress, Zobel clearly tries to prevent the images from becoming leering and sensationalistic. He doesn’t always succeed, proving just how difficult it can be for a filmmaker to safely traverse minutely fine lines.

 

bad sleep well

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960). Akira Kurosawa was known — and revered — for taking Shakespearean dramas and reimagining them as samurai epics, but the Japanese master filmmaker could pull of the same astounding trick with more modern fare. With a story that echoes Hamlet, Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well depicts the insidious corruption within the capitalist and political spheres of postwar Japan, couching it within familial drama as a corporate titan’s daughter (Kyoko Kagawa) marries a young man (Toshiro Mifune) with mysterious intent. As usual, Kurosawa insightfully and carefully explores his many themes, while also framing shots with exquisite care that somehow feels naturalistic. There’s a bleak sense of humor laced through the proceedings, as well. If the film lacks the grandeur of Kurosawa’s most famed achievements, it excels at finding the epic within the seemingly mundane.

 

devils bride

The Devil’s Bride (Terence Fisher, 1968). Known as The Devil Rides Out in its U.K. homeland, this entry in the beloved pantheon of Hammer Film horror offerings concerns itself with the scourge of devil worship. Based on a 1934 Dennis Wheatley novel, the film concerns the efforts of two British gentlemen (Christopher Lee and Leon Greene) to rescue a fellow member of the gentry (Patrick Mower) from the thrall of a cult that passes the time by sacrificing farm animals to surprisingly chill satanic figures. The tone is set by Lee’s characteristic performance, disrupting a prevailing air of stern refinement with flurries of aggravated alarm. The great horror writer Richard Matheson penned the script, and it carries markings of authorial sturdiness and wry humor. Director Terence Fisher bring a vigorous craftsmanship to the proceedings, especially when called upon to deliver the film’s climactic temporal tomfoolery that is equal parts delightfully clever and splashily silly.

Great Moments in Literature

“My mother poured recklessly but perfect, capping off my glass just before it overflowed. Still, a trick to get it to my mouth without spilling. She smirked a little as she watched me. Leaned back against the newel post, tucked her feet under her, sipped.”

—Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, 2006

 

“ONE OF THOSE QUIET EVENINGS, WHEN EVEN THE CITY SOUNDS FADE INTO GENTLE, DISTANT MUTTERINGS — ONE OF THOSE SILENT PERSONAL MOMENTS A MAN SPENDS JUST BREATHING — JUST FEELING AN INSTANT OF TREASURED LIFE.”

—Gerry Conway, DAREDEVIL, Vol. 1, No. 80, “In the Eyes … Of the Owl!,” 1971

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — An Introduction

Last week, we came to the conclusion of the mightiest College Countdown effort yet, a survey of the Top 250 songs from the first ten years of CMJ, the trade publication that once served student broadcasters — and maybe still does, sorta. It took over a year-and-a-half of weekly posts to count backwards from the lower reaches of the chart to the top spot.

For my next big trick, I’m going to mount an even more ambitious — or perhaps more lunatic — College Countdown undertaking, one that is so large and will take so long that I’m thinking of it as “the final Countdown.”

Right now, though, I haven’t even completely figured out how to pull that off, or at least the basic logistics of the weekly posts are currently eluding me. In part due to that, and in part out of a desire to have something of an interlude between the two massive Countdowns, I’m going to do something a little simpler to carry through to the end of the calendar year.

As I’ve noted before, my College Countdown borrows its name and basic concept from a weekly show that aired at my student radio alma mater, WWSP-90FM, roughly during the years I was a proud member of the staff. Primarily hosted by the fine fellow who would also become my cohort on the on-air movie review show I often remember in this digital space, the weekly program aired on Sunday nights and used the regularly published CMJ 40 Cuts chart to set the playlist.

For the next few weeks, I will honor my predecessor the proper way.

cmj top 40

This chart comes from the spring of 1990, which I don’t idealize quite as fervently as the same time frame one year earlier, but I look at the music that dominated our attention and still see a version of college radio from the days before Nirvana unintentionally knocked sonic diversity asunder with their runaway success. A playlist could go just about anywhere, and the tracks on this chart reflect that.

The new Countdown gets underway properly next week. In the meantime, here is the listing of all that have come before in this space:

The 90FM-WWSP charts

90FM’s Top 90 of 1989

90FM’s Top 90 of 1995

90FM’s Top 90 of 1996

The CMJ charts

The First CMJ Album Chart (from 1978)

CMJ Radio Top Cuts chart from Winter 1991

CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001

CMJ Top 250 Songs of 1979-1989

The other charts

The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981

KROQ-FM’s Top 40 Songs of 1987

First Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart from Fall 1988

Rockpool‘s Top 20 College Radio Albums from November 1988

The Gavin Report Top 20 Alternative Chart from October 1992

 

From the Archive: Margot at the Wedding

margot

Since the new Noah Baumbach movie, The Meyerowitz Chronicles, has arrived, the time seems right to dig out this old review of the director’s fourth feature, released ten years ago. It was Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, his most successful film, by several measures, to that point, amping up expectations for what proved to be a fairly sour cinematic experience. That was Baumbach’s goal, to be sure, but the segue into Bergmanesue drama didn’t particularly suit him.  

While generally very good, Margot at the Wedding perhaps could have used a little less dedicated approach to maintaining the integrity of its unlikable characters. His prior film, The Squid and the Whale, unexpectedly established Noah Baumbach as a writer skilled at depicting the emotional abuses that can occur within families and a director unafraid of pushing that material at the audience with discomforting plain-spoken forcefulness. If anything, he ups the ante with Margot.

The film focuses on two sisters reuniting after a stretch of angry silence as a wedding approaches. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the bride-to-be and Nicole Kidman is her domineering sister, a woman seemingly incapable of saying a single thing that isn’t, on some level, intended to wound. Kidman’s character is the most relentlessly negative, but the whole array of characters is loaded down with unpleasant tendencies. Leigh’s character is more commonly victimized, but she also has enough flares of her sibling’s armor-piercing judgment to establish that as a common family trait. Jack Black’s groom-to-be easily lapses into futile fury and other inappropriate behavior. There’s a poisonously egotistical writer with his own cruel streak played by Ciaran Hinds and even a set of creepy backwoods neighbors who grimly stare down the people on the other side of the fence when they’re not stripping down to underpants to gut animals in the kitchen. It gets so pervasive that when John Turturro shows us a relatively nice, well-adjusted guy you wonder how he got there, both into the family and into the movie.

This reservation aside, the film is still of this fine new vintage of Baumbach: intelligent discourse laced with inspired, bitter humor and acted with nakedly honest performances. This bleak picture holds some power because it’s grounded in recognizable truths, truths especially familiar to anyone who has ever had cause to apply the word “dysfunctional” to any part of their family circle. Every line of dialogue is a scar, painful because it is a reminder of old wounds. It’s almost a relief when the closing credits finally appear. That may make for tough going, but it’s also a central goal of the film.

One for Friday — Big Pig, “I Can’t Break Away”

big pig

I need to acknowledge the walls of the college station where I made my home from 1988 to 1993 (and beyond, truthfully). Not the college issued white blandness, but the scrappy, unkempt cover-up provided by student programmers over the years. The walls were adorned with posters sent by the labels and promotional agencies, hand-lettered station policy announcements peppered with wry comedy, and bumper stickers procured from broadcasting brethren across the nation.

There were also patchwork arrays of album flats, the recreations of covers used to promote new releases. A few of those popped out to me, achieving their insinuating purpose of sending me to the record itself, giving it a place on my playlist. Some of those covers tickled my mind because they were vivid or lovely. Some simply served as a reminder of an album to which I’d already silently pledged my allegiance. Interestingly, one of the album flats that always grabbed my eye and interest did so because of its graphic simplicity.

Bonk, the debut full-length from the Australian band Big Pig, boasted a markedly straightforward cover:

Big_pig-bonk

The band name, rendered large, and the album title superimposed over it. That’s it.

The music I found there was very 1988, especially the quasi-hit single known as “I Can’t Break Away” in the U.S. Thumping, post-disco with a fierce female lead singer yearning for Annie Lennox comparisons and backing vocals that try to replicate heavy bass drum urgency in their tone, the song almost seems genetically engineered for the movie soundtracks of the day. Of course, that’s precisely where it ended up, getting sonic space on the TV series Miami Vice and in the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (on the movie’s soundtrack, it is nestled between two tracks by the L.A. hair metal band Shark Island.)

The track worked pretty well in a college radio set, too, although it was likely to send fragile little me scuttling back to the personal safety of some gruffly downbeat guitar band, preferable from the Upper Midwest. I might have been occasionally inspired to sample Big Pig’s Bonk because of the album cover, but I also had difficulty breaking away.

Listen or download –> Big Pig, “I Can’t Break Away”

(Disclaimer: I believe Big Pig’s Bonk to be out of print, at least as a physical object that can be acquired from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensate both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. I suppose it could be residing on a compilation or soundtrack out there, but my crack research department — which is, you know, me — has limitations to how deep of digging will be done when, being real, sharing this song in this way in this place should count as fair use. Regardless, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this track from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)