by Steve Habrat
For many years, it has been said that the western is a dead genre. It may not be as popular as it once was, but every so often, the genre rides back from the sweaty cinema graveyard and sternly reminds us all that it is alive and well. Take John Hillcoat’s 2005 Australian western The Proposition, a clammy, existential stargazer of a picture that appeals to both aging fans of the genre and the wine-sipping art house crowd. There is an echo of Leone here and maybe a faint whistle of Peckinpah there but gently rolled into the center of The Proposition is an apocalyptic rumble that refuses to quit. There are many layers to The Proposition, from a story about the complex relationship between a trio of outlaw brothers to the idea of taming the unruly Australian outback through violent force. Don’t be fooled by the film’s sensitive side as The Proposition can turn on you in an instant, almost like a whiskey-drenched outlaw who has just been disrespected in the local saloon. Yet the real shock comes in the way the film warns us that in a place this wicked and gray, even the most innocent soul isn’t immune to the horrors that can blow in from the plains.
The Proposition takes us into the unforgiving Australian outback of the 1880s, where a savage gang led by the Burns brothers roams about causing mayhem. It is rumored that the Burns brothers gang is responsible for the horrific massacre of the prominent Hopkins family, who appear to have been beloved by the local community. After two of the Burns brothers, simpleton Mikey (Played by Richard Wilson) and clever Charlie (Played by Guy Pearce), are apprehended by lawman Captain Stanley (Played by Ray Winstone), Captain Stanley cons Charlie into riding into the outback and finding their eldest brother Arthur (Played by Danny Huston), who is said to be the deadliest of the Burns brothers gang. Captain Stanley warns Charlie that he has nine days to find and kill Arthur and if he doesn’t, Mikey will be executed. Charlie reluctantly accepts and rides out into territory that is savagely defended by Aboriginal tribes that kill any white man that dares set foot on their land without an army. With the clock ticking, Captain Stanley soon finds himself fending off protests from the community and his fragile wife, Martha (Played by Emily Watson), who was very close with the Hopkins family. As the protests turn violent and his job slowly slips out of his hands, Arthur learns of the plot to bring him down and he sets out to find Captain Stanley and innocent wife.
Set to a gulping bass line and whispery chants from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Proposition hints that a storm of fury is gathering on the horizon, just waiting for the right moment to rain down on the dusty town. The whispers in the score ask “when”, “why”, and “who” as all three of the brothers gaze up at the fiery sun and the twinkling stars. The build up to this storm doesn’t hesitate to linger on the beautiful Australian outback even though we know that this untouched land is slowly being gutted by senseless bloodshed. Nick Cave’s screenplay may use a different location for this squinty showdown but he doesn’t mind drawing from the good old western tradition of waiting around for death to come riding into town on a rusted horse. The outlaws pass the time chatting about love and starring out at the landscape while the military men grunt about the sexual acts they would like to perform on Martha while the Captain is away. We do have to wonder who the real savages are in The Proposition and that question is easily answered as the film moves into its second act. The outlaws use violence to protect their freedom while the Aboriginal tribes are using violence to protect what is rightfully theirs. The military uses senseless slaughter and overkill to send a message, all while flies gather on their sweaty backs. Yet Cave and Hillcoat don’t ever squander an opportunity to show us how senseless all this violence really is. It is written in the reactions of those who pound a drum for it.
With the weighty script in place and an atmospheric score pondering about how this will end, Hillcoat and Cave give their actors plenty of room to really develop their characters. Pearce is a marvel as he silently rides through the rocky terrain, sipping from a bottle of liquor and touring the smoldering ruins of the Hopkins’ home, ruins that now lie empty as their spirits cry out in agony. He is eerily similar to Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but I’d dare you to find me a modern day gunslinger that doesn’t draw from that legendary cowboy. Huston is a slow burner of a baddie, a sadistic killer who only shows his true colors when he is prodded with a hot poker. You will fear for the fool who dares anger this slumbering beast. Winstone’s collapsing Captain Stanley is desperately trying to provide a safe place for both his wife and himself to call home. It is emotionally draining to see the dim light of hope die in his eyes as things go from bad to worse. Watson brings her fragile gaze to Martha, who only wishes to have a cozy Christmas with her loving husband. You can see the naïve gears in her head turn as she silently tries to comprehend the violence in these outlaws. When this delicate soul is smashed in the final moments of the film, it shatters into tiny pieces that will never be able to be put back together. David Wenham rides into town as Captain Stanley’s boss, Eden Fletcher, who dishes out one hundred lashes to poor Mikey, leaving him a sobbing, bloody heap. Also present is David Gulpillil as Jacko, an Aboriginal tracker who tries desperately to understand the viscous nature of the white man and John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a sloshed old bounty hunter searching for Arthur.
The Proposition boils down to a bond between brothers, and what they will end up doing for one another. Despite their shocking actions, they stand by, loyal even as they hold a gun to each other’s head. When the bullets fly across the screen, The Proposition remains ever thoughtful of the situation in front of it. Yet any good western boils down to how affecting the story truly is and I must say that The Proposition is one that sticks to your ribs long after the last gunfighter falls to the ground and a defiled woman shrieks in horror. With an ending as black as night, The Proposition is certainly not a Hallmark western, one where the sheriff walks away triumphant and the outlaw is led away with cuffs around his wrists. Oh no, it is far from it but that doesn’t even begin to spoil the ending of the film. In fact, it seems clear to me that all that time the western has spent out in cinema’s forgotten graveyard has only toughened the genre up and caused it to be a bit more philosophical than it already was before it pulls the trigger.
The Proposition is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Among the superhero movie elite is without question director James McTeigue’s politically charged 2006 film V for Vendetta, based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. Heavily critical of oppressive, war hungry governments who lie to their citizens and control through fear, it is very easy to read V for Vendetta as an attack on the ultra right wing extremists. Even if you do not quite agree with the politics of V for Vendetta, the film still has plenty to offer in the action and suspense department. Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix boys) penned V for Vendetta, so you know you are in for one hell of a thrill ride when the bullets, knives, and fists start flying. Despite the heaping amount of praise I give this film, I do think it does have its fair share of flaws which cause it to stumble during its second act, especially when much of the focus is pulled off of the liberal-minded vigilante V, a monstrous experiment that backfires on all of those who were responsible. The story is so busy and tries to juggle so much at one time that you may find yourself hitting the rewind button out of confusion, at least on your first viewing. Things do clear themselves up a bit after revisiting the film a few times but certain points are still murky. Even so, you have to applaud the film’s reluctance to simplify itself, which is always invigorating in a superhero film.
The year is 2020 and much of the world is ravaged by civil war, disease, unrest, and chaos. Great Britain is under the control of a fascist Norsefire party, who act as a sort of Big Brother type. One evening, British Television Network employee Evey Hammon (Played by Natalie Portman) decides to make a trip to the home of her boss, Gordon Deitrich (Played by Stephen Fry), despite the government curfew that is firmly in place. The streets are partoled by “Fingerman,” a secret police force who takes orders from High Chancellor Adam Sutler (Played by John Hurt). Evey ends up bumping in to several “Fingerman,” who then attempt to rape and beat her but she is saved by a mysterious man in a Guy Fawkes mask. This man, who calls himself V (Played by Hugo Weaving), proceeds to take Evey to a rooftop that overlooks the Old Bailey, which he then proceeds to destroy. The next days, the Norsefire party attempts to cover up this attack but V infiltrates the BTN and takes credit for the attack. He then encourages the citizens of Great Britain to rise up against this tolterian force that oppresses them and join him on November 5th, 2021, outside the Houses of Parliament and watch as he destroys it. Evey ends up bumping into V as he is fleeing the BTN and she narrowly saves his life, but it is all caught on camera. With no other alternative, V takes Evey to his underground hideout where she slowly begins to understand what V is trying to accomplish. She also learns about his horrific past inside a concentration camp called Larkhill, one set up by the Norsefire party. Meanwhile, lead inspector Eric Finch (Played by Stephen Rae) is hot on V trail but he ends up discovering more than he bargained for.
Certainly not the easiest film to briefly sum up due to the fact that there are tons of moving parts that allow the story to keep chugging along, V for Vendetta certainly is a rich and hearty thriller that more than satisfies. The first forty minutes of the film are absolutely glorious and flawless, with plenty of mind-bending action sequences and slow mounting suspense to keep you glued to your seat. The infiltration of the BTN by V seems like something Christopher Nolan would have concocted in one of his Batman films with closed-quarters action that would have been right at home in The Matrix. Then things switch from relentless action into more of a political thriller and character drama. The second half of the film is certainly interesting, especially when we get to hear about the origin of the Norsefire party and how V was molded into a Shakespeare-quoting gentleman who prefers to slay his victims with knives and ideas. It is here that the narrative tries to cram in too much and things begin to get tangled up in its own story. There are so many characters to try to keep track of that the exhaustion carved into lead inspector Finch’s face says it all. Yet when things finally do come together, or at least when we can finally put all the puzzle pieces in place, it does knock you off your feet. In a way, this is a positive because the more times you see V for Vendetta, the more that it chooses to reveal, making it one that you could happily add to your film collection.
Another unusual approach in V for Vendetta is never allowing the audience to get a glimpse of the V’s face. We learn that V was horribly disfigured in a fire and that he also can take quite a bit more punishment than the normal human being, a result of experiments that were conducted on him in Larkhill. V keeps his scarred face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask and allows his personality to come alive in eloquent and poetic dialogue that pours from the small slit in the mask’s mouth. He is mildly pretentious in the way he quotes Shakespeare, enjoys high art, and swoons over The Count of Monte Cristo, a film he can quote line by line. His underground lair is walled with books as thick as bricks, shrines to individuals who were deemed “unfit” by the Norsefire party (a lesbian woman who was in a cell next to V while he was in Larkhill), and accented with classical tunes that pour forth from his jukebox of 100 songs, none of which V has ever danced to. Weaving has his work cut out for him in selling V to the audience but he does it with human grace. I enjoy the fact that V is meant to represent all of us and I loved the fact that my imagination ran wild with what he looked like. We only ever get a glimpse of his hands, which are red, swollen, and peeling, grotesque but tragic, even more so when Evey sees them and V quickly covers them up so he doesn’t offend her.
Then we have Portman’s Evey, who has to speak in a faux British accent that does come off as fake from time to time but Portman’s character is caught in so much conflict that you barely notice. She is a powerhouse when she has her hair shaved off in one of the film’s more intense moments. She morphs from a conformed member of the Norsefire society into a cold, steely liberator with eyes that are made of fire, perhaps the same flames that baptized V. Her intimate moments with V, the ones where they speak of their pasts and V’s plot are touching, haunting, and hypnotic. Then we have Rae’s Finch, a loyal Norsefire party member who is beginning to question the party he has dedicated himself to. The more he uncovers, the more he begins to see that V is not the enemy. Another standout is John Hurt as Sutler, who is almost always seen on a giant screen that looms over the closest members of his cabinet. There is so much force in his voice when he snarls at those close to him that he needs to remind the people of Great Britain why they need him. Rounding all the main players is Fry is a closeted homosexual who fears his sexual orientation will have him jailed, but that is the least of his worries, and Tim Pigott-Smith as Peter Creedy, the scowling and slimy head of the “Fingerman.”
V for Vendetta has a shattering moment in the middle of the film when it flashes back to tell the story of Valerie (Played by Imogen Poots and Natasha Wightman), a lesbian who was disowned by her family and ultimately arrested by the government and thrown into Larkhill. The scene is fueled by so much raw emotion, anger, frustration, and ache that it still retains its punch every time you see the film. It is the highlight of the convoluted middle section of V for Vendetta, one that shows the true suffering at the hands of evil individuals who lack the right to judge their neighbor. It also acts as the push behind this liberal minded superhero outing. It is a call for tolerance and acceptance of all walks of life, something the far right refuses to do. Despite the longwinded politics of the middle portion of the film (trust me, it covers it all), the last act ties everything up in grand, fiery fashion, complete with a rousing fireworks display. The end battle scene between V and several members of the “Fingerman” is turned up eleven with slow motion spirals of V flying through the air and cutting down those who have caused him so much pain, V’s rage tied up with fluttering ribbons of blood cutting across the action. Yet it is the idea that together we can accomplish anything that will have you on your feet by the time the credits roll. It is the idea of universal freedom that allows V for Vendetta to stand as one of the true triumphs of the superhero genre.
V for Vendetta is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I wish that audiences paid more attention to visionary director Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 superhero film Hellboy, a funky and gothic monster mash that practically explodes with creativity. Based on Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse comic book of the same name, Hellboy seems like an absurd premise but because del Toro gives his ragtag group of ghouls a human heart, the film becomes a real charmer. Credit should also go to Ron Pearlman’s performance as the big red crime fighter who loves a good cigar, has a hopeless crush on a colleague, weakens at the knees for a Baby Ruth, and just can’t resist a kitten. While many may not be able to wrap their heads around a demonic superhero, Hellboy rewards those who will give him a chance with tons of monster-on-monster brawls, nightmarish critters who prowl the subways of New York City, and plenty of quirky one liners to really allow Hellboy himself to come to life. Oh, and did I mention young love? While Hellboy hasn’t aged particularly well since its release, del Toro keeps things timeless by his use of tons of outstanding make-up and icky puppets that will simultaneously make your skin crawl and give you nightmares. Not bad for a comic book movie.
Hellboy begins during the final days World War II, taking us to a stormy island off the coast of Scotland where a handful of American soldiers and the young Professor Broom (Played by John Hurt) are spying on a small band of Nazi soldiers performing a strange occult ritual that would awaken “The Seven Gods of Chaos”, monstrous creatures that slumber in another dimension. This ritual is being led by Grigori Rasputin (Played by Karel Roden), his mistress, Ilsa (Played by Bridget Hodson), and monitored by the gas-masked Kroenen (Played by Ladislav Beran), Hitler’s top assassin. The American soldiers attack half way through the ritual and stop the Nazi’s before any dangerous creatures get through the portal that has been opened. Rasputin manages to get sucked through the portal and shrapnel kills Kroenen, or so the Americans think, but the world is saved from annihilation. As the soldiers and Professor Broom explore the site, they discover a strange little creature that is all red and has a massive stone hand. Professor Broom determines that the creature means no harm and begins looking after the little fella. The soldiers decide to name the creature “Hellboy” due to his bizarre and demonic appearance. Fast-forward to present day where adult Hellboy (Played by Ron Pearlman) works for a super secret organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. With the help of the psychic amphibious humanoid Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones), beautiful pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Played by Selma Blair), rookie agent John Meyers (Played by Rupert Evans), and Professor Broom, Hellboy battles bizarre critters that mean to unleash destruction on Earth.
Hellboy wins the audience over instantly with Ron Pearlman’s devoted performance as Hellboy, a towering man-child who files his horns down to fit in with society, something that he never sees yet longs for. He ends up grounded by Professor Broom for sneaking out of the underground facility he calls his home and having a picture snapped of him, which inevitably ends up on the news. Debates rage over the existence of Hellboy on talk shows, all theories debunked by Tom Manning (Played by Jeffery Tambor), a grouchy FBI Director who loathes the big red beast. It is a blast when Hellboy sneaks out on Halloween to meet up with Liz, who has checked herself in to a mental institution after multiple accidents that involve her fiery ability. He steals a six-pack and begs Liz to have a good time but she is reluctant, which deflates the lovable oaf. It is in these little moments that we really find ourselves rooting for Hellboy, even more than we do when he is rumbling with a drooling demonic creature with tentacles slithering out of its head. In fact, his job almost looks like it gets on his nerves and is just a giant inconvenience. Things really get tough for Hellboy when Meyers begins moving in on Liz, a move that drives Hellboy bonkers. This sets a knee-slapping immature rivalry into motion that culminates in Hellboy, who has a chocolate chip cooking dangling from his mouth, tossing stones at Meyers, who is trying the old yawn and stretch trick to put his arm around Liz. Boys will be boys!
While Pearlman steals the show, his supporting players are not too shabby themselves. Blair was born to play the perpetually frowning Liz, who curls inside wool coats with a hat pulled over her jet-black bangs, wearing a withdrawn look on her pretty face. She becomes a gothic heroine to a million girls in black t-shirts and combat boots. And then there is Doug Jones as the slinky Abe Sapien, a soft-spoken and thoughtful sidekick who tries to keep Hellboy in check. He is the cool head to the loose cannon (del Toro symbolically represents that in their skin color, cool blue on Abe and hot head red on Hellboy). Tamobor is hilarious as Tom Manning, who is consistently appalled by the belligerent behavior of his horned employee. John Hurt is marvelous as the gentle father figure who looks over these crazy kids, stepping in when they get a little too wild. Rupert Evans is appropriately fidgety as Hellboy’s rival and it is hysterical to watch Hellboy try to come to terms with this new hotshot member on his team. Then there is Roden’s Rasputin, a typical sunglasses-wearing baddie who is hell-bent on reducing the world to ashes. His evil plot is a bit yawn inducing considering it has been done several times before but his henchmen spice things up. When Hodson’s Ilsa isn’t making your hair stand on end with her glassy-eyed dedication, Beran’s acrobatic assassin Kroenen will. Beran is one of the coolest comic book baddies, sporting one hell of a gas mask and spinning around blades like he came out of the womb doing it.
While the elaborate monsters that del Toro’s FX shop spits out are remarkable works of art, the real draw is the actors who are bound and determined to make Hellboy a keeper. They succeed with flying colors as I preferred the moments where the characters were interacting with one another over the scenes where things are blowing up. Even though they have to ooze sentiment through heaping gobs of spirit gum, Jones and Pearlman manage to pull of the almost impossible and make their character heartwarming. There is plenty of exhilarating action sequences that are a marvel to drink in but Hellboy just misses greatness due to a routine finale that finds Rasputin threatening to unleash giant monsters on New York City. The film also trips over some dated computer effects, which are glaringly out of place when they are piled onto del Toro’s jaw-dropping puppets. The plot of Hellboy is also thinly spread over the course of its two-hour runtime but there is enough adolescent shenanigans and young romance to keep you smiling. Ah, if only fitting in and scoring a date with the girl was as easy as turning a demonic hellhound to ash.
Hellboy is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After the fatigued but fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, Indy took a long, much needed break from saving the world. For years, audiences begged for another installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, loosing their minds over the smallest hints dropped about a possible new film. In 2008, fans finally got their wish with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a CGI heavy blockbuster that had an aged Indy battling Russians in the atomic age. Opting for science fiction shenanigans over biblical trinkets, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings back Harrison Ford as the fedora-wearing hero, has him joining forces with fan favorite Marion Ravenwood, and facing some of his most outlandish action scenes yet. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is littered with the fingerprints of George “Overkill” Lucas, who I’m fairly certain is responsible for some of the low points of this half-good installment. Returning director Steve Spielberg does his best to hold the project together and he does direct the film care, but it is so painfully obvious where Lucas took over as his input sends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a violent nosedive that Spielberg has to quickly right.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, with a much older Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Ford) and his partner George “Mac” McHale (Played by Ray Winstone) kidnapped by Soviet Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Played by Cate Blanchett). She brings Indy and Mac to Area 51, demanding Indy locates a mysterious box that contains the alien remains from Roswell. Reluctantly, Indy begins helping her and then makes a daring get away. Indy narrowly survives a nuclear bomb test and is picked up by the FBI, who accuses him of working with the Soviets. Indy is forced to take an indefinite leave of absence from the University he teaches at but soon finds himself approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Played by Shia LaBeouf) who tells Indy that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (Played by John Hurt), has mysteriously disappeared after he discovered a crystal skull in Peru. Mutt also reveals that his mother has been kidnapped and that he needs Indy’s help to find her. Indy agrees to help Mutt find his mother and Oxley but as their search continues, they discover that Colonel Dr. Spalko is also after the crystal skull, which if obtained could allow the Russians to wage psychic warfare on America.
The rumor behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that there was another script that Spielberg wanted to make but Lucas insisted on this one. While there are some awesome moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the good is overshadowed by the extremely awful. In this film, we see Indy survive an nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, narrowly escape a sea of giant killer ants, Mutt swinging through the jungle with monkeys, and a climax featuring a huge UFO rising up out of the ground. It is these moments that make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel more like a Star Wars film rather than an installment of Indiana Jones. The film does marvelously weave perhaps one of the most interesting eras into the franchise, using the Cold War as the backdrop for all the action. Yet this all feels even more like child’s play, more than The Last Crusade did. The scene with Mutt swing through the jungle on vines with a slew of cute monkeys will make the kids giddy. There is also the weird prairie dogs that are constantly shown in the opening moments of the film, a touch that I still to this day do not quite understand other than to add a cutesy family touch.
The major positive here is the presence of the fervent Ford, who gladly dusts off the famous fedora and wears it proudly while searching for the crystal skull. Spielberg and Lucas enjoy playing up the joke that he has aged and not at his heroic best, having Indy make mistakes and urging Mutt to call him “Gramps” every chance he gets. Yet when Ford is asked to be tough and throw a couple of right hooks, he is more than willing to give it a try. Ford still has it as an action hero and he ultimately carries this overly polished moneymaker across the finish line. Giving him Karen Allen to work with also puts some spring in his step, reigniting the feisty flame the two had in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. They once again argue about Indy’s fear of commitment and by now, you know that Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son, which causes Indy to really erupt. This dysfunctional family ends up being a real winner even if it is an attempt to sell a family movie. I especially like watching Indy and Marion once again discover their feelings for each other, which allowed The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to win points for familiarity.
There has been quite a bit of controversy over the character of Mutt Williams, who at times seems to be there to allow for future installments. He’s likable enough but I hope that Spielberg and Lucas have the good sense to not pass the whip and fedora to him. They do a clever little fake out at the end but I still fear the worst with his character. He ends up being a character that the kiddies can root for while Mom and Dad are cheering for the winded Indy and Marion. John Hurt gets to have a little fun playing off-his-rocker with Harold Oxley. He is another character that is there just to provide a few little chuckles. Winstone as Mac is a pretty useless character, there to be the typical side nuisance Indy has to constantly deal with. The star next to Allen and Ford is without question Blanchett, who enjoys playing the vampy Spalko a little too much. She is slightly sexy and cartoonishly menacing when swinging around a sword. She truly is a character that looks like she was ripped out of a long, lost comic book that has been stashed away in your grandpa’s basement. Next to Raiders’ Arnold Thot and Temple of Doom’s Mola Ram, she is one of the best villains of the Indian Jones series.
If Spielberg and Lucas would have cut back on some of the excess and maybe removed the silly CGI alien at the end, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have been a much smoother roller coaster ride. Many have lambasted Spielberg for some of the mistakes here but I am firmly convinced that Lucas is the one to blame for the more asinine moments of the film. In a way, I sort of feel bad for giving this film an average grade because there is so much heart and dedication on display, especially from Ford and Spielberg, who seem to be right at home with this material. There were moments where I was totally engulfed by the rousing action, mostly the ones that weren’t cluttered with CGI trickery. If Indiana Jones does return for one more adventure, lets hope that Lucas steps away from the special effects and focuses more on giving fans a film that is worthy of their fedora-wearing hero rather than just being a greedy cash grab.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction/horror classic Alien is a film that truly understands how showing very little can scare us beyond belief. Taking place aboard the claustrophobic spaceship Nostromo, Scott terrorizes his audience by leaving basically no place for the crew to run, no place to barricade themselves in to wait out the sudden attacks by this slimy creature, and no weapon that can banish the beast to the fiery depths of Hell. While on the outside Scott has made a claustrophobic nightmare of narrow hallways and futuristic gunmetal wires, it is what Scott is doing on the inside that really gets under the viewers skin. Scott has made a film in which he reverses the sexual roles within the film. We don’t have some macho male hero to root for in Alien, one who resembles a bodybuilder with a buzz cut. Instead we have Sigourney Weaver’s feminist hero Ripley, a tough and stone-faced chick who finds herself being the last one standing against a goopy phallic creature that burst forth from a man’s chest.
Alien follows the crew aboard the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, who are currently hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore back to good old Earth. The crew soon discovers what they believe to be a distress call from a nearby planetoid, causing them to take a detour to check out what exactly is the signal is. When they land on the craggy, windy, and gloomy planetoid, Captain Dallas (Played by Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (Played by John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Played by Veronica Cartwright) discover a strange ship that contains several bizarre eggs. One egg breaks open and the organism inside attaches to the face of Kane. On board the Nostromo, Warrant Officer Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Played by Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Played by Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Played by Yaphet Kotto) fear allowing Kane back on the ship, but Ash is excited about the discover of this new alien life form. As they begin attempting to dissect the organism, they realize they are dealing with something extremely dangerous. Without warning, a new life form bursts from Kane’s chest, fleeing into the ship and rapidly growing to a gigantic size. As the crew is bumped off one by one by the hungry creature, they have to quickly figure out how to get this bloodthirsty alien off their ship and make it home alive.
Perhaps my favorite trait that Alien possesses is the way Scott blends the alien in with the Nostromo itself. I always found it so eerie the way the alien would suddenly pop out, having been in plain sight but we the viewer oblivious to the fact that it was right in front of us. It gives Alien the feel that this twisting labyrinth of a ship is coming alive and claiming victims one by one. My two favorite sequences have to be when Captain Dallas faces the alien in a tight space, the alien’s arms shooting out of the darkness but appearing almost like a tangle of wires and hardware until we see its gaping jaw as it goes in for a penetrating kill. My other favorite scene is when Ripley is in the escape pod in the final minutes of the film, the alien crouched in the fetal position inside a darkened crevice. The creature’s phallic head resembling part of the ship until it suddenly moves and roars at Ripley. Talk about a neat effect!
The alien itself, conceived by artist H.R. Giger, ranks as one of the most iconic movie monsters in the long history of the genre. Show a picture of it to anyone and they can instantly identify what the creature is. The beast, which is kept mostly in the shadows throughout Alien, is a true marvel, one that is a skin crawling vision while also having a faint phallic look to it. The creature grows more horrifying with each small reveal that Scott places strategically throughout the runtime of Alien, revealing the entire beast at the climax but blasting it with strobe lights, a blue glow, and blurred camera angles to keep some layer of mystery to it. Scott doesn’t simply use the alien to scare us, but applies it as a thought provoking monster that is used to make comments on the male fear of childbirth (as a baby, it is flesh colored and vaguely erect, burst forth in a shower of gore fro Kane’s chest) and used to make a comment on the battle between the sexes. At the end, the empowered Ripley strips down to just her underwear and an ill fitting t-shirt as the phallic alien, with a stinger that resembles an erect penis shooting from its mouth, bears down on her. It’s a classic sequence that is both memorable for its events and the underlying subject matter, suggesting attempted rape and penetration.
Any discussion of Alien would not be complete without praising the work of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the empowered, no nonsense heroine who finds herself being the last woman standing in the battle between the crew and the alien. She is unrepressed and liberated, finding herself in charge of the ship in the wake of the deaths of the two men who ranked above her. Yet even from the first time she is introduced to us, she overshadows the men, all who seem slightly weak and unable to protect themselves from this monster bearing down on them. One male victim just stares in horror and disbelief as it shoots its erect stinger out of its mouth at the wide-eyed pile of flesh. Yet Ripley never falls apart, instead owning every scene she is in, even when she is placed next to Cartwright’s Lambert, who is reduced to shrieks and tears when the alien closes in. She is one tough broad and she is proud of it. Looking at the time in which Alien was made, released in 1979, right in the midst of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ripley stands for tough and uncompromising feminism, looking this phallic monstrosity in the face and refusing to back down from it. She was a far throw from the female cliché that ran rampant in mainstream horror films at the time, the ones who ran away from the monster, the caricatures that Lambert appears to represent.
Alien is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking exercise in horror. It is an industrial mash-up of futuristic science fiction and dramatic slasher horror. Much has been made about the sexual undertones, many critics pointing out male fear of rape and penetration, the most recognizable being the fear of childbirth with the show stopping chest burst sequence, a scene that is glaringly obvious. Each and every scene has an epic gusto that tears right through it, yet each scene works in synch with the next, culminating in a strobe-like burst of seething feminism. The cut-off feeling, soggy claustrophobia, and lack of a thorough explanation of the alien all make Alien a classic among the science-fiction horror genre. Alien ultimately turns out to be B-movie material approached with an A-list touch and an extreme confidence in itself. This is an intelligent must-see horror masterpiece from the heyday of the genre.
Alien is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I’m glad I let Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marinate in my mind for a few hours before I sat down to hammer out a review of it. I emerged from the matinee showing with my head spinning and my brain scrambling to put the pieces of this puzzle together. I was so hastily trying to wrap my head around what I had just seen. I was initially let down by it and to think I was so excited to see this smoky, earth toned espionage thriller that looked like it was ripped out of the 1970s. I thought it would be full of thrills and white-knuckle moments. Folks, I’m here to tell you it’s not what you think it is. Despite passing itself off as a Cold War spy flick, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about the men that were causalities of this war that consisted of suspicion and heightened awareness of the individual at your side. Accusations flew in place of bullets. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about bombed out egos rather than bombed out cities. If character studies and talky dramas turn you off, either wait until this film is at your local Red Box or skip it entirely. If you are willing to let it into your brain, you will find it slowly creeping down your spine hours after you see it.
Set in 1973, retired British Intelligence agent George Smiley is lured out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Played by Simon McBurney), the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate a mole who has infiltrated intelligence and has apparently been there for years. Smiley teams up with fleeing agent Ricki Tarr (Played by Tom Hardy) and intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and together they launch an investigation aimed at the new Chief of the Circus Percy Alleline (Played by Toby Jones), his deputy Bill Haydon (Played by Colin Firth), and his allies Roy Bland (Played by Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhause (Played by David Dencik). Smiley begins meeting with individuals who were forced out of positions due to their suspicions and accusations, now left in ruin and haunted by what the know. Along the journey, Smiley tries to repair his shattered past and come to terms with his demons that silently plague him.
While it is certainly a droll film in it’s first forty-five minutes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy finally sets things in motion when more layers begin to peel away. The one aspect I really liked in the beginning was the fact that Smiley barely spoke any dialogue and he lets his world-weary face do all the work. His eyes are cartoonishly enlarged behind his thick-rimmed specs and his mouth slightly opens as if he is about to let a thought out but he quickly remembers to cage it back up. He is a curious one. When he does speak, he has a raspy and weary voice to fit his somnolent eyes, though his words have been dipped in thick globs of confidence. Oldman does a terrific job with Smiley and he will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his aloof portrayal of John le Carré’s heartbroken spy. I found myself replaying the scenes of Smiley strolling through the misty, dingy streets of Cold War London or Smiley sitting alone in his apartment as the television chirps in the background. There is a knock at the door and in response, his head slightly turns, and this is when we get a quick glimpse at his broken and lonely heart.
The rest of the supporting players in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hold up quite well next to the slow burn of Oldman’s Smiley. This is, afterall, a character piece. Firth’s Bill Haydon is a standout, providing some small bursts of humor in the relentlessly dreary atmosphere. Hardy’s Ricki Tarr seems like he will be the tough guy but Hardy has the good sense to show us that even tough guys have a breaking point. Jones’ Percy Alleline is a supercilious and loose cannon little twerp who you would never dare cross (even if he only stands at 5’5”). What is fascinating about these men, who all appear to be working on the same side, is that if their eyes were daggers, no one would be left standing. They sit around in a smoky boardroom and stare each other down, loose their cools, stomp off, and sulk. And yet Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds the moments where we see them fall victim to all the suspicion, accusations, and attempts at ruin. They collapse when the chips are down and it is almost worse than any of the actually carnage that the film shows us.
Behind all the cigarette smoke and glaring actors, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy offers us eye-popping art direction, allowing Cold War London to really come alive. At times, I felt that the sets were actually characters in the movie. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also shrouded in a film noir atmosphere and the only thing missing is a femme fatale to lure these men to their fate. Director Tomas Alfredson has made a film that slowly grows in the hours after it has been seen, coaxing you back to uncover more. It is watered by your own puzzlement over it and your drive to want to put it all together. The film never resorts to gunfights or fists fights and it only builds excitement through heated exchange. The downfall of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that the film sometimes seems unsure how to actually build that suspense and the narrative gets caught up in itself. Talky and arty with a nifty old school swag, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works better as a portrait of wrecked men rather than as a chilly espionage mystery.