From the Archive: Alien 3

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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.

From the Archive: Margot at the Wedding

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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.

From the Archive: A Prairie Home Companion

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I don’t have much to add to the review below (originally published at my former online home), except to note that every great director deserves to have a final film as perfect of a closing statement as this one is for Robert Altman.

Enjoyment of the new(ish) film A Prairie Home Companion is not predicated on an appreciation for the long-running radio program that shares its name, but it may be dependent on an admiration for the work of Robert Altman.

That particular logic problem answer is based on a case study of one. I plainly don’t enjoy Garrison Keillor’s radio program, finding its gentle homespun storytelling and plunking musical performances to be achingly dull. I’ve tried to find its charm, genuinely hoping to discover that ingratiating warmth that keeps dedicated public radio listeners coming back week after week. Instead, I’m left as perplexed as Homer Simpson when he famously encountered a Keillor doppelganger while watching a PBS pledge drive and responded by smacking the side of the set in futile hope that it would jar some actual entertainment value out of the performer.

And yet…

Generally, I enjoyed the film. Keillor’s script (based on a story co-conceived with TV writer and Minnesota educator Ken LaZebnik) focuses on the production of a lightly fictionalized version of his radio show. Hanging heavy over the typical hustle and bustle of a live radio program featuring multiple musical performers is a sense of mild dread as a major media company has just bought out their home radio station and there are expectations that this performance may be the last. Interspersed are hints of relationships between the characters and backstories that come lightly into play through the dense conversations backstage and, occasionally, on mike.

All of these plot details feel somewhat incidental, though, and not by faulty narrative construction, but by design. Altman has rarely been concerned with the rigors of linear storytelling. He’s much more fascinated with submerging his films into a culture and soaking it in. He wants to convey how a place, a time, a group of people feel. What is it like to move through life with a group of characters for a while? There is a main plot that moves through the 105 minutes of the film, and several smaller stories that drifts along in its wake, but Altman primarily seeks to bring to the screen the work of performers, the effort and strain and combativeness and playfulness of the troupe that mounts this production. Keillor’s radio show is an affected reflection of Midwestern stasis, but the film he’s made with Robert Altman is about the focused stage managers and anxious musicians that manufacture the artifice. In their toils, it finds a bracing energy that enlivens the lengthy portions of the radio show performances that help fill the film.

When a film is more about the parts than the whole, the consistent excellence of those parts becomes extremely important and that’s where Companion picks up some static. There are pleasures aplenty provided by the large cast, led by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters, the last remaining remnants of a family act that toured the county fair circuit (to Keillor’s credit, he understands that you’ll not find a better city name to use as a ready-made punchline than Wisconsin’s Oshkosh, and making this the sisters’ hometown allow him to drop the O-bomb with impunity). The mastery of Altman’s trademark naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that they demonstrated at this year’s Oscar ceremony serves them well here. I suspect a satisfying film could be wrestled together solely and strictly from this tandem’s extended dressing room conversations. While the more jagged edges given to Tomlin’s character offer her a little more to do, Streep deserves admiration for her astonishing ease and comfort with the on-stage performances. Thirteen Oscar nominations de damned, watching her here it’s well within the realm of imagination that she could bypass future film work and wind down her career having the time of her life with a weekly gig at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Not faring as well is Kevin Kline, portraying the official show detective (already an odd conceit) Guy Noir, whose name is apparently taken from a recurring radio show character, but I presume the tiresome physical shtick he engages in is freshly created for the film. Perhaps Kline brought in some of the rejected gags from his prior production. Everyone else lands somewhere in between, although singing cowboy duo Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly can claim one of the film’s most unlikely comic highpoints with their final song.

This is hardly one of Altman’s masterworks. It doesn’t have the bite of Nashville or The Player, nor does it have the focus of Gosford Park. But it does have the restless bustle of his better efforts, that incessant inquiry into overlooked corners where little moments are as telling as sweeping stories and big points. It is truly, unmistakably Altmanesque.

From the Archive — Pleased to Meet Me

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A couple of weeks back, a friend of mine was kind enough to share some airtime with me. After participating in the reunion weekend for my old college radio station two years runnings, I decided I was up for swinging north for a sub shift from time to time. So there I found myself, one Sunday night, playing an array of songs that fit snugly on the left end of the dial. To make sure I felt my age, I devoted one set to albums that were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary, concentrating on record releases from the fall of 1987. This led to thoughts of all the albums with that distant copyright date, including the one that I routinely argue deserves inclusion on any discussion of the great rock ‘n’ roll records of all time. Thirty years since Pleased to Meet Me? Suddenly my knees hurt. I also wrote about the album during my Spectrum Culture days, but this particular piece originally went up at my former online home, as part of the “Flashback Friday” series.

For years, whenever I engaged in that favorite late-night, barroom game of debating which rock ‘n’ roll album deserved the designation “the greatest of all time,” I opted for a fairly unique choice: the sixth release from The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me. Hell, most fans of the Minneapolis band wouldn’t even rank this as their best album, usually opting for the turning point represented by Let It Be, an effort so venerated that you can be chastised for daring to muse over its imperfections. But to me, it’s exactly what a great album should be. It’s a collection of fantastic songs, each with its own personality but also feeling like a true part of a whole. It’s perfectly of the moment, but also timeless. It’s the wondrous clatter of a great band persevering, even as they seem to be falling apart, and if that’s not the overarching story of The Replacements, I don’t know what is.

The album was recorded as a trio, the band having parted ways with guitarist Bob Stinson and not yet recruited Slim Dunlap as his, um, replacement. Being a man down doesn’t lessen the band’s fullness, nor does losing their most sonically combustible member dull their edge. In some ways, it makes the playing of the other members a little rawer, a little more reckless, as if they’re trying to fill the void. The album has some of the same “Ah, what the fuck” energy of the early effort Hootenanny, a willingness to springboard to any different sound or thought that strikes them. The primary thing that sets Pleased apart is that Paul Westerberg has fully come into his own as a songwriter. Nothing here is just tossed off, an old habit of the band’s that seemed to signal their disinterest in the very rock stardom that they couldn’t help but chase. Even the plainest song on the album has a commitment to it that is energizing.

The album begins with a one-two punch that typifies the mix of abandon and polish that will follow. The first song “I.O.U.” is a potent scorcher, a propulsive rock song that finds Westerberg’s old punk scream worn down to growls and moans that don’t undercut the anger of the song one bit. That gives way to what is simply the greatest pop song Westerberg ever conjured up, something I suspect even the legendarily cantankerous songwriter believes. Six minutes and ten seconds into the record, and The Mats have already proclaimed they can take their music anywhere they damn well please, and then they proceed to take it bigger, bolder, brasher and further afield. There’s the gloomy anguish of “The Ledge,” the bounding lovelorn cynicism of “Valentine” (“Well you wish upon a star/That turns into a plane” is a contender for the finest couplet on the record, an incredibly competitive battle), and the happily boozy charge of “Red Red Wine.”

Then it ends as it began, with a pair of songs that brilliantly encapsulate the range and skill of the band. If “Alex Chilton” is Westerberg’s greatest pop song, “Skyway” is his finest love song, an understated, wistful lament that hinges on lovely example of fate’s cruel sense of humor. And, with just a couple of lines, Westerberg also manages to evoke the harshness of Minneapolis winter, giving the song a strong sense of place. That’s followed by the splendid amble of “Can’t Hardly Wait” that captures the weary stasis of a life of “ashtray floors, dirty clothes and filthy jokes.” With its false endings interspersed throughout, it’s the sound of a band that can’t quite motivate themselves to just give up on it all. They’ve been beat up at every turn, but there’s still a chance they may be able to wring some truth out off their guitars if they just grip the neck a little tighter, a little longer. When the track finally fades out and the record is over, in some ways so is the band. There are two more proper albums with the Replacements name on them, and there’s good stuff aplenty on those releases. But this sounds like the end of The Mats, the laughing, indifferent train wrecks from the north who were the last band that mattered, but didn’t really care themselves. May all our endings rock this hard, sting this sharply and shuffle off into the murky night with such aplomb.

From the Archive: Little Miss Sunshine

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As Battle of the Sexes makes its initial, limited-engagement foray into theaters this weekend, I double-checked the filmography of co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, figuring that I’d been largely tuning out their work since their feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine, became a sleeper hit and a Best Picture Oscar contender. Instead, I found that there hasn’t been much to ignore. In the eleven years between their debut and their latest, the husband-and-wife team delivered only one other film, the poorly-received Ruby Sparks. Here’s why I wasn’t paying attention: I really disliked Little Miss Sunshine. This review originally appeared at my former online home.    

Little Miss Sunshine is the sort of film I’d expect a powerful computer to create after compiling data gleaned from all of the comedic films that generated buzz at the Sundance Film Festival over the years. It’s a road movie with a dysfunctional family at the core. It’s got an old person who uses foul language and illegal drugs, a self-help guru who can’t get his own life in order, a teenager who’s sense of personal detachment from the world has led to a vow of silence, and on and on. The movie is so mercilessly crammed with archly colorful details that the family drinks from McDonald’s glassware and embark on their roadtrip in a dilapidated old VW bus. It feels orchestrated rather than created, carefully engineered to hit the Sundance jackpot. On that front, mission accomplished.

Despite the scorn sprinkled through the above paragraph, that’s not automatically a damning crime. One of the things we get from going to the movies is that comforting satisfaction of the familiar or the expected. Sometimes when a movie ends exactly the way we expect it to, it feels right rather than disappointingly predictable. That’s even true for independent fare, when all the pieces lining up properly can be an indication of artistic assurance. The problem with Little Miss Sunshine is that it has little to offer besides its standard-issue parts. The film aims it satiric darts at easy targets and can’t even capitalize on the comedic possibilities offered by the characters. The few times they are allowed to really spark off of each other generally correspond to the moments when the film briefly generates some energy. When Steve Carell starts giving Greg Kinnear a backseat lesson in sarcasm, cherish it. It’s like won’t soon come again.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (veterans of music videos and Mr. Show) assemble the film adequately, at least having the sense to give their talented cast the room to squeeze whatever they can from Michael Arndt’s limp screenplay. It’s always satisfying to see Alan Arkin and Toni Collette, no matter how much you long for them to have something beyond the simplistic to dig into. Arkin has the designated showboat role, but Collette fares better in some respects, occassionally inserting an intriguing detail in a fluttery throwaway or small reaction. Carell continues to combine crack comic timing with a genuine investment in real acting, and Kinnear is as good as he’s ever been here, hitting the right mark of irritable worry for his character with a constitent level of commitment that–Oscar nomination be damned–is fairly rare for him.

I kept waiting for these gifted performers to pull it together, to transcend their thin material. Despite scattered memorable moments–the methodology employed by Abigail Breslin’s Olive to retrieve her emotionally wounded brother is an especially nice example–the film remains defiantly tethered. The family never feels like people with long-standing relationships, and the emotional turning points are too often driven by illogical story construction, ludicrous coincidence or plain old plot holes.

Near the end, there’s a scene that involves the family members stepping up to support one of their own in an especially low moment. The result is an exuberant celebration of the character’s ill-conceived choice, the entire family united through the mutual embrace of their own off-kilter connection to the world they move through. It’s not a great moment, but it’s one of the places where the familiarity of the filmmaking choice at least feels right. With Little Miss Sunshine, those glancing connections to genuine accomplishment are the best you can get.

From the Archive — The Fountain

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On the occasion of a new film from Darren Aronofsky, arriving to acclaim and debate, and as I eagerly await my opportunity to screen said film and join in the carousing argument, it’s perhaps worth remembering that most of the director’s films simply aren’t very good. This was written for my former online home. As a nifty bonus of “From the Archive” timing, the review contains an offhand reference to a 1990 medical-based thriller that will see its remake hit theater in just a couple of weeks. 

Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Fountain is like What Dreams May Come altered so it’s less for a Mitch Albom crowd and more for a Chuck Palahniuk crowd. If all those references muddy the water a little too much, let’s put it this way: just because it’s arty and edgy and self-referential, all steeped in anger and darkness and blistering imagery doesn’t mean it’s not still a laughable piece of junk.

The film is about eternal love and endless life with science and mythology engaging in a tentative dance together around these subjects. The film moves willfully back and forth in time and between the fiction of the film and the fictions within the film. Aronofsky handles his multiple plot threads nimbly enough. It’s never especially confusing, but nor is it compelling. At its worst, the film is layered in woefully hoary conceits, stranding a talented cast to strain and emote or beam and twinkle. Poor Ellen Burstyn is reduced to the scientific equivalent of the tough precinct captain, berating obsessed doctor Hugh Jackman as “reckless” as he frantically tries to cure his wife’s illness by toiling in the most poorly lit operating rooms to grace a screen since Julia and Kiefer played with defibrillators.

Aronofsky had a wonderfully warped debut with 1998’s Pi, the wildness of the story secured by being grounded in ideas that felt right. With 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, the ideas and humanity were buried by his relentless addiction to his own techniques. It took him six years to craft a follow-up and he’s only managed to compound the misjudgments of his prior film.

From the Archive: Running with Scissors

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I really should be dropping an old review of a Stephen King adaptation into this space, but I believe I’ve exhausted my supply of writing on the often-dire translations of the prolific author’s work. Instead, I’ll take as my prompt the season debut of the latest sprawling exercise in lavish provocation from Ryan Murphy’s television empire. I have no informed opinion to offer on Murphy’s recent television creations, except to say that I’m grateful to the FX Network for keeping him busy enough that he doesn’t have time to make more movies.

You can probably pull out any two or three scenes with Annette Bening from the new film Running With Scissors and make a case for some splendid acting going on, but the performance doesn’t really cohere within the film. That’s certainly due in part to the character Bening is playing: the mentally ill mother of future writer Augusten Burroughs. She is a writer, enchanted with her own creativity and consumed by her own misery. She’s also under the sway of a psychiatrist of questionable merits who keeps her well-stocked with mind-altering pharamaceuticals, so, to a degree, it makes sense that there’s not much of a through-line to the character. But just because something is understandable (or within the scope of audience rationalization) doesn’t make it satisfying. What’s worse, the problems hindering Bening’s performance are apparent elsewhere. Inconsistency and offputting exhibitionism may be suited to her chracter, but those are also apt, unfortunately descriptions for the rest of the film.

Ryan Murphy, creator of the FX series Nip/Tuck, wrote the screenplay (adapted from the bestselling memoir by Burroughs) and directed the film, demonstrating little facility for either task. It’s easy to pick out individual directorial transgressions — Bening pops her first pill in import-heavy slow-motion so preposterous and cliched that it must be awkward and ill-chosen parody; a time transition achieved through a fast-motion static shot of a movie theater exterior — and dismiss them as the missteps of first-time feature director anxious to create something artistic and challenging and different. What’s really dreadful is the mangled tone that the script and the direction conspire to create.

For the bulk of the film, Augusten Burroughs (played adequately if unimpressively by Joseph Cross) is in his early teens, and the life he’s living is a series of horrible challenges. Besides the fragility of his mother’s psyche, his departed father wants nothing to do with him and he’s dispatched to live with the warped therapist in a giant, filthy house stacked high with the discarded detritus of life, from empty food cans to ancient Christmas trees. He bonds with one of the man’s daughters and falls into a sexual relationship with another adopted son, a disturbed man in his thirties. This is a troubled and troubling journey, but Murphy clearly strives to balance the discomfort with a sort of bleak humor (consistent with the approach Burroughs took in the original book, I believe). Those sort of tone shifts require great deftness, and Murphy just doesn’t have it. The resulting wreck relies on sitcom-style set-up and punchline gags, cheap scatalogical jokes and pushy art direction to squeeze laughs from the 1970’s costumes and decor (look there’s a can of Tab! And avocado-colored appliances! What a riot!) The humor is too self-satisfied to be funny and it leeches any power out of the dramatic moments. These are sick, lost people, and its sometimes hard to sympathize when them after the movie had so aggressive prodded us to laugh at them first.

Early on, the voiceover narration announces this is based on a true story, adding that without that assurance no one would believe it. There’s some cause for this as the film never does feel authentic. It’s not because of the extreme circumstances, though; it’s because of the incredible bungling of the filmmakers.