Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Alien 3 (1992) - 3 stars out of 10

Alien 3 (1992) - 3 stars out of 10

“Alien 3” has been maligned for its jumbled storyline, poor pacing, and lack of character development.  That may seem harsh but those criticisms have actually come from its director, David Fincher!  The root of the problem was the film’s rushed production schedule.  Fox set an unrealistic release date so that the film could fill its summer blockbuster slot and all quality was sacrificed in order to meet the deadline.  This led to a new script being written as they filmed, creating plot holes and forcing the crew to use sets that were already built for an obsolete script.  It is a shame because Fincher’s vision for the next chapter in the series could have been fascinating.  From the onset of the warped 20th Century Fox introduction that precedes the film, you know that this is going to be a weird one.  The difference in tone and style is obvious from the opening credits, trading the slowly developing Alien text of previous installments for quick cuts that thrust us into the center of the story.  The series returns to form with a single, terrifying alien that is able to stalk and destroy the crew on its own.  “Aliens” gave us more aliens but cheapened their scare factor since the humans could easily dispose of them.  The xenomorph is much scarier when it is so powerful that 25 testosterone-filled, double-Y chromosome criminals struggle to kill it.  There are two sorts of scenes in this film - the ones where they try to capture the alien and the ones where they have a conversation about trying to capture the alien.  The latter requires every third word to be the f-word while the former only requires every eighth word to be the f-word.  There is so much unnecessary profanity in this film that it is difficult to stomach.  I suppose that it emphasizes the “tough guy” persona of every character in the film but we could have gotten the idea without so much profanity.  The acting is decent considering the lack of non-profane dialogue provided by the script.  Sigourney Weaver delivers another strong performance, I always love Pete Postlethwaite, and Charles Dutton manages to create a well-developed character in spite of the weak script.  My favorite character is actually Jonathan (the doctor played by Charles Dance) but he is completely underused in the theatrical release.  It wasn’t until I saw the Assembly Cut that I realized how well-developed this character could have been.  In fact, everything about the Assembly Cut is better... except that it is so long and slow.  The additional footage helps us to better understand Fincher’s vision but adding content to a subpar production merely makes it a longer subpar production.  The addition of Weaver washing up on the shore and the alien bursting from an ox add some extra grit but the most significant difference is the story’s most interesting plot point: Golic freeing the alien.  I felt legitimate anger when I realized that the Theatrical Cut completely circumvented this subplot.  It is crucial to the story, devastating Ripley when she is finally victorious and motivating her to take her desperate measures at the end.  The exclusion of this portion of the story from the Theatrical Cut also robbed the film of its most interesting theme: man-turns-monster-into-a-god.  Science fiction stories often have the hero defeating a monster but things get interesting when a character begins to believe that the monster is something other than the enemy.  It is painful to think that someone believed that the film could be better without this element.  The most interesting thing about “Alien 3” is what it could have been.  When you strip away the philosophical discussions about the flawed production and the potential of David Fincher’s vision, we are left with a subpar movie that is only tolerable because it links “Aliens” to “Resurrection.”


[Pictured: The alien is scarier than ever but the story is less interesting than ever]

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (2018) - 8 stars out of 10

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (2018) - 8 stars out of 10

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is one of my favorite musicals, which made me very skeptical of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” from the first announcement.  Fortunately, the “In Concert” label was misleading as this was an all-out, Broadway-caliber production complete with choreography, costumes, and chemistry between characters.  In fact, the only remnants of a Concert production were the annoying audience members that occasionally interrupted a song with their screams.  The audience added little to the production but managed to amplify the energy of the cast, so I didn’t mind them being there.  I just wish that they hadn’t been encouraged to actively make themselves a part of the broadcast.  So how did the vision of the directors and adaptation for tv work out?  Things that I didn’t like: Female apostles, head-banging Simon, Herod’s oddly costumed saloon dancers, Judas’s unclear death, Pilate’s last note (though you can’t blame him for going all in).  Things that I loved: Everything else.  The production was brought to life by a combination of music industry favorites and current Broadway stars, up close and personal thanks to the unique camerawork that often put the home audience onstage with the cast.  It was fun to feel like a part of the story.  Brandon Victor Dixon was born to play Judas, capturing the emotion of the character while staying true to the vocal parts of which we are all accustomed.  He took artistic license with a few passages but all choices enhanced the character.  As is often the case in Superstar, he easily stole the spotlight from Jesus.  I feel that the director handled his death as carefully as possible for a prime time audience but the end result was so vague that you couldn’t even be sure that he died.  John Legend’s portrayal of Jesus is noticeably more meek than Ian Gillan’s aggressive singing on the iconic original album.  There were many moments when I heard falsetto where I expected rock and roll screaming, but Legend’s interpretation probably better reflects the actual personality of Jesus.  The moment that did demand a more aggressive tone was the temple scene where Jesus historically expressed righteous anger and Legend fell noticeably short.  You can hear the fatigue in his voice toward the end of his performance (especially during the failed high falsetto moment in “Gethsemane”) but who can blame him when singing a role like that without the benefit of an intermission.  He was one of my main reasons for feeling skeptical and I was pleasantly surprised by everything that he brought to the production.  The real showstopper was Sarah Bareilles as Mary Magdalene.  Her singing is effortless and emotionally engaged, making for several of the best moments of this production.  One of the greatest moments of the night was Alice Cooper singing the role of Herod.  The crowed LOVED him and his sing-speaking style was perfect for the part.  I grew to like baritone Norm Lewis as Caiaphas as the production progressed but I’m still pretty annoyed that they didn’t cast a true bass that could powerfully project the infamously low notes below the bass staff.  Ben Daniels played Pilate incredibly well and the rest of the cast offered solid performances.  I am thankful that the music stayed true to the original concept album, keeping the entire show intact as we all know it.  Every dissonant chord, odd time signature, and anachronistic style kept this unique take on Jesus’ final days fresh and interesting.  There were some balance issues between the pit and cast but with an undertaking of this magnitude, I believe that the balance was beyond acceptable.  I especially love that the electric guitarist (whose presence in the musical is worthy of being called a “lead”) was given his due during the Overture as he actually became a part of the action.  An occasional note out of tune reminded us that the orchestra was live but I felt that they were just as solid as the cast.  As usual, I was disappointed that the show didn’t end with a resurrection.  The sequence of Jesus ascending on the cross was powerful and really emphasized his sacrifice, not to mention that this is how Andrew Lloyd Webber chose to end the show.  But if NBC was going to exploit Easter Sunday by scheduling this production on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, it would have been fitting to complete the story.  The timing was the equivalent of broadcasting “The Nativity Story” on Christmas Day and ending it before Jesus was born.  “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” was more than a tv special.  It was an event.  And while there were some casting and production decisions that don’t have my full support, it was amazing and did justice to one of my favorite musicals.

[Pictured: Dixon and Legend deliver a great one-two punch in the lead roles]

Monday, April 9, 2018

Hello, My Name Is Doris - 9 stars out of 10

Hello, My Name Is Doris - 9 stars out of 10

“Hello, My Name Is Doris” is the sort of film that seems like it could be decent and ends up being completely awesome.  I was skeptical of the 60-year-old-falls-in-love-with-a-twenty-something story but it doesn’t take long to realize that this silly plot is merely a means of delivering the relatable themes of loneliness and acceptance.  The dynamic (and sometimes over-the-top) characters drive the story with comedy that is sometimes brainless and other times sophisticated.  This may be Oscar-winner Sally Field’s finest performance ever.  She plays the “crazy cat lady” so perfectly that you will easily see someone that you know in her.  Once you add the emotional layers of loneliness, grief, regret, and shyness on top of the comedic character role, it is astounding.  The writers deserve a great deal of credit for creating this unique, memorable character and there is nobody better suited to bring it to life than Field.  I love that the character has laugh-out-loud moments as well as an emotional breakdown that really allows Field to flex her acting muscles.  Every moment is enhanced by her zany wardrobe - the costumers must have had a blast working on this film.  Tyne Daly’s character “Roz” also stands out with a fiery personality that perfectly contrasts the timid Doris.  Unfortunately, the writers also overused profanity where it was completely unnecessary.  If the writers could have pared the script down to two f-words (which was totally possible), this could have been a great film for parents to teach their teens some important lessons.  Once again, the Hollywood standard for comedy isolates a ton of potential audience members.  They redeem themselves with an incredibly clever ending that ends up being the only way to conclude the film without it being creepy or depressing.  “Hello, My Name Is Doris” is a unique film that will make you laugh with its comedy and leave you reflective on its topical theme of reaching out to the lonely, inevitably inspiring a realization of how much the loner can contribute to society.

[Pictured: Sally Field elevates her comedic role through a combination of humor and loneliness]

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Apollo 13 - 10 stars out of 10

Apollo 13 - 10 stars out of 10

“Apollo 13” is one of the most recognizable films of the 1990’s.  Whether you saw this film in the movie theater, during a high school class, or every Sunday afternoon on cable, Ron Howard’s vision presents the complex science and drama of this fateful mission in a way that is relatable to audience members of every age.  It is evidence that a family-friendly film can be critically acclaimed, win Oscars, support a complex plot, and engage our emotions while carrying a PG-rating.  It boasts incredible acting performances and special effects that are on par with every other blockbuster of its time while remaining appropriate for everyone.  I doubt that anybody has ever complained that Howard should have incorporated f-words and adult scenes into the story.  It really makes me wish that there were more films out there like “Apollo 13.”

The key to this film’s success is the combined quality of the script and actors.  Many space epics focus on visual effects but the core of this film is the dialogue.  The script creates a variety of moments that range from educational and inspirational to heart wrenching.  It feels so real because everything is focused around the candid accounts and actual transcripts of this mission.  The writers often incorporate the exact dialogue of the astronauts into the script and other times rephrase the dialogue into memorable tag lines like “Failure is not an option” and “Houston, we have a problem.”  This masterful screenplay is then brought to life by some of the most talented actors in Hollywood, (not just the biggest names, but the ones with the most talent).  From Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton helplessly floating through space to Ed Harris, Gary Sinese, and Kathleen Quinlan trying to bring them back to Earth, a film would be lucky to have any one of these actors let alone all six!  By the end of the film, they embody their characters so well that it is hard to picture any of these historical figures without the actor coming to mind.  The film’s critical and commercial success is evidenced by its 9 Oscar nominations including Harris, Quinlan, Screenplay, Score, Art Direction, and Picture.  It may seem odd that it lost the Visual Effects category to “Babe,” but it isn’t shocking in hindsight as that film revolutionized the use of CGI to enhance living things.  Apollo did win the Sound and Editing categories and any other year, its effects (which still hold up nearly 25 years later) would have won.  But history tells us that there is something more important than any award: the iconic moments of “Apollo 13” will forever be recognizable on the Hollywood landscape of past, present, and future.

[Pictured: In an age before CGI, these actors had to film these zero-gravity sequences on a plane in freefall.  This sort of dedication is why we still love "Apollo 13" today]

Friday, April 6, 2018

30 Days of Night - 5 stars out of 10

30 Days of Night - 5 stars out of 10

“30 Days of Night” delivers all of the violence and blood that you would expect from a vampire movie.  There are no love stories or sparkling skin amongst these vampires – just a thirst for blood in a spectacular setting.  The story takes place in an Alaskan town that experiences thirty days without sunlight each year.  The town is completely cut off from society during this time each winter, making it the perfect target for a coven of vampires.  The vampires in this film are terrifying.  They are extremely aggressive and speak in a language made up of clicks and simple syllables.  Their screeches will cut directly through you as they are led by Danny Huston in a frighteningly convincing performance.  Many of the vampires develop chilling personalities without uttering a single line, particularly Megan Franich as the alpha female and Andrew Stehlin as Huston’s sidekick.  Outside of the vampires and the setting, the film is okay.  The story provides some interesting twists but I have some issues with the execution.  The first 45 minutes deliver a ton of action over the first few days of darkness but then everything slows down before suddenly jumping ahead to Day 18, then again to Day 29.  They probably could have cut out 20 minutes of this movie, spread the events over all thirty days, and kept the pace moving.  The acting is very average among the humans with the exception of Josh Hartnett whose character and acting drives the film.  “30 Days of Night” isn’t the best horror film but there but it will do the job if you are in the mood for uncensored vampire violence.


[Pictured: This film is all about the vampires]

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Descent - 8 stars out of 10

The Descent - 8 stars out of 10

“The Descent” is in a world of its own.  Literally.  As if the claustrophobia of crawling through tiny passages of an uncharted underground cave isn’t bad enough, what if you discovered that you weren’t alone?  This creature horror film will have you on the edge of your seat with its unique atmosphere and graphic pickaxes-through-zombielike-creature-heads story.  A lot of the film occurs in the dark which keeps us wondering if something is about to jump out.  The most interesting part of the film is one theme that is subtly introduced at the onset of the film: people often begin to hallucinate in caves.  Do these thrill-seekers actually encounter anything down there, or is it all in their heads as they slowly go crazy?  The original UK ending gives us a hint but the unknown of this film will leave you thinking far beyond the closing credits.  The individual character development isn’t the greatest (I couldn’t name a single character from the film) but I’m okay with it since these characters operate as a single unit trying to survive.  Certain characters have memorable moments (especially Juno), though it is their actions that make an impact and not their personality.  Whether it is intentional or not, the lack of character development helped me to place myself into each character’s plight.  It didn’t matter if I related to their personality because their “Everyman” feel made me feel like I could be any (or all) of them.  The acting (unlike the character development) is vivid.  I found it really easy to believe that these were real people trapped in a cave, screaming with desperation amidst severe circumstances.  This movie didn’t leave a huge impact on me when I first saw it but with a second viewing, I am very impressed.  “The Descent” has been called the scariest movie of all time and, while I can’t go that far, it is a thrilling journey that will have you turning your head away in its goriest moments and contemplating what is real between each scream of the characters.

[Pictured: “The Descent” is not for the faint of heart with strong imagery and plenty of gore, but I find the most fascinating part of the film to be the questions that are never given a concrete answer]

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Aliens (1986) - 7 stars out of 10

Aliens (1986) - 7 stars out of 10

I am going to oppose popular opinion and state that “Alien” is far superior to its sequel, “Aliens.”  This sequel has been praised for providing more violence, more special effects, and a better look at the aliens (plural this time), but you need to read my prior post about why these things actually make the sequel weaker.  The unwritten rule of sci-fi sequels states that they must feature more action and longer looks at the creature than the original to hold the audience’s attention.  The “Jaws” sequels are a prime (and painful) example.  Where the original used methodical suspense and suggestion to engage our imaginations until the big payoff at the end, the sequels required extensive shark violence from start to finish because we have already seen the previously unknown.  “Aliens” follows the same pattern.  The aliens themselves hold up remarkably well after 30 years (especially the terrifying queen) but their overstated appearance takes away from their intrigue.  Moreover, the film’s more intense use of the aliens actually weakens our fear of them.  In the original, the alien was so vicious that the characters couldn’t even get near it.  It transported us into Ellen Ripley’s nightmare, helpless to protect ourselves from this creature.  But the characters in the sequel are facing an army of aliens which means that they have to continually dispose of them to keep the story moving.  The prospect of encountering one of these aliens is much less scary when they can quickly be blasted away en masse and with ease.  Most of this disconnect with the original comes from the fact that two different directors are imagining two completely different stories that occur in the same universe.  Ridley Scott took a Hitchcockian approach while James Cameron opted for “Rambo In Space.”  I do like that the story offers a unique allusion to the Vietnam War in which a technologically superior group struggles to take down a hostile enemy in enemy territory.  I prefer the setting of the original (helplessly stranded on a spaceship with an alien) but encountering the aliens on the ground gives this sequel an interesting new direction.  It also better fits the action movie approach to the story with large-scale battles instead of crew members hiding on a small ship.  “Aliens” lacks a gradual buildup of tension as the cast seemingly kills time between the exciting alien encounters but that’s the trade off when creating an action film instead of a thriller.  Along those lines, the film is driven by action instead of acting.  Sigourney Weaver gives a dominant performance but the other crew members seem like each is an exaggerated caricature of their stereotype, especially Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein.  I also found Carrie Henn’s child performance to be rather weak, though it can’t be easy to find a 9-year-old that can give a dramatic performance amidst a bunch of aliens.  I wish that I could judge “Aliens” for its own merits but it is so hard to separate it from the iconic origin of the series.  Someday, I will have to watch this film out of context as if it were a standalone film.  Until then, I will just have to accept that the only similarity between the films is that they exist in the same universe.

[Pictured: The moment when Weaver appears in the power loader is one of the most iconic shots from the entire series]