Sunday, 23 April 2017

During a big game hunt, the animals being hunted don't arm the hunters!

AVP: Alien vs. Predator
(2004)

(SPOILERS) I suppose it made sound financial sense for Fox to greenlight Alien vs. Predator (or AVP: Alien vs. Predator), but that was about all it made. Perhaps they saw it as a toss-up. A once prestigious, feted series that had been gradually diminished by troubled productions and iffy creative choices, all the while to escalating costs and diminishing returns. This one would come in relatively cheaply, with no star overheads and a safe-pair-of-hands director. Against that, what price the damage to the franchise, which would now be rendered, as James Cameron put it, on a level with Frankenstein meets Werewolf? Approving the pitch of the blandest writer-director auteur going, Paul WS Anderson, was bound to be seen to creatively bankrupt a series that had at very least nourished the illusion of leading with character and concept. Obviously, going with the quick buck won.


While I’m disappointed that we haven’t seen (and I suspect won’t, and I really hope, if we do, doesn’t involve de-aging Sigourney) closure to the Ripley resurrected plotline, I’m not honestly too sorry that James Cameron’s Alien 5 idea was nixed – or he nixed it himself after learning about AVP (yeah, I’ll call it that here, it’s easier) – as even given he’s the writer-director responsible for the best sequel in the franchise, and far superior to Anderson – who isn’t, mind? –  and certainly more reliable than Scott in terms of ensuring his material is robust, he’s better with structure than concepts.


However, Cameron had a point when he suggested AVP would “kill the validity of the franchise”; since that moment, and on top of what many see as a straight-up botch with Alien Resurrection, its sights have been set incredibly low or entirely too high (the common response to the investigation of the series’ origins with Prometheus being that it was misconceived, if not outright disastrous). Of course, his subsequent critical appraisal of the move, that “I actually liked it. I actually liked it a lot”, unravels any high-mindedness he might have had in his court. This, presumably, is the same keen faculty he brought to bear when he gave his blessing to Terminator Genisys (and the seal of approval to Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 screenplay)? And then you have to consider that Jimbo is working with scribe Shane Salerno, who worked on AVP and its sequel, on the next 15 Avatars, so they should maintain a consistently high standard. Mind you, Joss Whedon, the greatest maligner there is of his own Alien Resurrection, while accepting none of the blame, also claimed to rate AVP. Maybe it’s just a thing of hating the previous two bona fide sequels so much, anything else looks fantastic in comparison? Or maybe the rest of us are missing something?
  

To be completely fair to the concept, the Peter Briggs 1991 screenplay (which, like AVP, includes a Predator saving a Ripley type who impresses him with her derring-do, and a scene in which she has to kill a friend while he watches – although there he does the deadly –  and ends with her looking over his dying body while his Predator pals show up) doesn’t read all that badly, in synopsis form at least. It isn’t noticeably worse than the various rehashes that made up many of the Alien3 drafts, just even more flagrantly generic. Lest Briggs be accused of starting this whole thing off, the meeting of Fox monsters had its first sighting in comic book form, and a portion of the blame should be levelled at Stephen Hopkins, for it was he who stuck an alien skull in Predator 2 the year before Briggs delivered his draft.


Is it a coincidence that another fight between “legendary” cinematic monsters arrived the summer before AVP? No one could claim Freddy vs. Jason was punching below its weight, albeit even then, the canny postmodernism of the previous Freddy outing actually does rather suggest that. Freddy vs. Jason made about the same as AVP at the box office, but cost half as much, which is probably indicative of the limitations of these kind of ideas (Alien vs. Predator: Requiem would reap half AVP’s gross). Of course, Fox has never been particularly preoccupied with quality. This was about the same time they handed X-Men: Last Stand to Brett Ratner, with expectedly atrocious results.


It isn’t as if Anderson can't put a movie together; he’s technically competent, but he’s incapable of touching anything that he doesn’t turn to slick, empty, serviceable-at-best dross. He rendered a David Webb Peoples script inert (Soldier) and has made a career out of forgettable remakes (Death Race, The Three Musketeers) and video game adaptations (Mortal Kombat, mastermind of the Resident Evil franchise, including directing four instalments, so successful video game adaptations, which deserves some credit) as well as his Titanic-with-lava epic fail Pompeii. It says something that his most creative endeavour is the mess that is Event Horizon, a grisly, tone-deaf Shining meets Alien knock-off. No one who knew his work was going to have high expectations for this, then; in some ways, he was exactly what AVP deserved (Roland Emmerich and Guillermo Del Toro were also apparently approached – even the former, maligned as he often is, is far superior to such material IMO).


In his wisdom, Anderson decided the best way to engineer a showdown between the creatures was to plunder Erich von Däniken. Apparently, he had been working on his concept for eight (!) years. Such hard graft doesn’t show, alas. Presumably then, the Earth based setting wasn’t thrust on him, because one might at least have given him the benefit of the doubt under such restrictions. If it absolutely had to be set it on Earth, and had to take place in the present, one might make the case that PWSA took the necessary precautions to make AVP as least conflicting with the rest of the franchise as possible, by ensuring it remained in a bubble, apart from civilisation (a thought process Requiem appeared to actively disdain).


Anderson said “You can’t have an Alien running around the city now, because it would’ve been written up and everyone will know about it. So there’s nothing in this movie that contradicts anything that already exists”. Nothing that contradicts anything, apart from conceptually and logistically, no. I’m pretty much on board with most of the criticisms of AVP, from the basic aesthetic no-no of bodybuilder Predators to the accelerated life cycle of the alien (the only plus side to this is that Anderson rattles through the movie, allowing us to take our leave around the 90-minute mark, depending on your preferred version). I don’t really care about the PG-13/15 certificate, except in as much as it represents a broader neutering of the scope and effectiveness of the entire franchise (it’s never been a series entirely about gore, but it ought to be one that places atmosphere over action).


The premise arrived at, of Predators using xenomorphs as a testing arena for young warriors, has some merit, much less so having Predators as the ones who taught us to build the pyramids – you can’t have it both ways, either they see themselves as gods, or they choose to come down periodically with a few days to kill. It’s not a good fit, refashioning them as minor deities. It’s almost as if Anderson had been watching Stargate and thought he’d have some of that (directed by Emmerich, of course, who’d also use the ancient aliens in 10,000 BC). It will be interesting to see how Shane Black reconceives the Predator next year, as generally speaking, the more you see of them, the less interesting they are. And here, they’re straight-up boring. Even given PWSA’s safeguards, it seems like an enormous stretch that no one at Weyland-Yutani ended up knowing about aliens (and Predators) on Earth for a century and a half prior to the events of the Ridley Scott classic (Requiem went out of its way to scupper that, in T2 fashion).


Besides those mismatches, there’s the thorny problem of Lance Henrikson’s Charles Bishop Weyland. Evidently, Anderson didn’t realise that Michael Bishop, who appeared at the end of Alien3, was supposed to be human (to be fair, there is some debate over this among fans, but it’s pretty evident the makers intended him to be a real boy). PWSA wanted a familiar face, so explained that the Bishop we know was a tribute (‘It’s created with the face of the creator”).


The end result, certainly as far as Ridley Scott is concerned, is that the AVPs are non-canon; he introduces his own Weyland, Peter, in the equivalent role for Prometheus, and Damon Lindelof commented that, when he mentioned Charles Bishop Weyland to the director “he sort of looked at me like I had just slapped him in the face”. Which is probably about right, given Scott professes not to have even watched PWSA’s movie (I suspect few fans of the series mind ignoring the AVPs contribution too much, although I’d hazard many more are considerably more exercised by Scott’s retconning of the space jockeys; they’d probably also mostly agree that his kyboshing Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 was a sound move, though, so it’s swings and roundabouts). It looks as if Alien: Covenant will establish that the xenomorph we know is a relatively recent star beastie, further expunging AVP from the canon.


Which makes it ironic that AVP and Prometheus share so much conceptual baggage. In both, the Weyland character is on a quest to stall his failing mortality. In both, aliens are intrinsic to the development of life on Earth – indeed, there’s a race of giants in both depictions, both of whom fall prey to xenomorphs they have sought to tame. The difference being, while Scott’s movie was lambasted for using a tired idea (ancient astronauts) or attempting to address ideas beyond its reach while simultaneously being quite stupid in respect of essentials like character and plot development, Anderson’s move was only ever recognised as being as straightforward and unflustered as it was.


The director cheerfully appropriates whatever concepts he sees fit, be they the Cube-esque readjusting infrastructure of the pyramid or the idea of using Antarctica for his setting. This has, after all, been seen in everything from Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (instructive to PWSA) to The Thing (both versions), to The X-Files movie, to Doctor Who (The Seeds of Doom) as a site for ancient ruins of a lost civilisation or aliens and their craft, or both; you only have to look at current conspiracy lore’s suggestion of ancient craft found there to see the continent retains its remote and mysterious cachet as a source of mythmaking. These stories even filter into the mainstream with regularity, The Daily Mail (I know, but it is mainstream) providing frequent reports culled from an assortment of alleged insiders and whistle-blowers, mixed in with those with a creative flair for fashioning YouTube videos.


Anderson actually sets the scene quite nicely, giving us an intro in 1904 and the same deserted icy town 100 years later (PWSA was inspired by the Vela incident). Okay, the shot we get of the Predator skewering a villager and then being attacked by an xenomorph completely undermines any mystery, suspense or atmosphere, but the thought is there. Once we’re down below, however, he’s bereft of inspiration, right down to the bland alien hieroglyphics.


Sebastian: What were those things?
Alexa: You tell me, you’re the pyramid expert.

The biggest problem with AVP isn’t the lack of originality, though, or even the atrocious dialogue; it’s that it’s difficult to give a shit. PWA allows us to spend a little time with Henrikson, and you can’t go wrong with Lance, but hardly anyone else makes an impression. Ewen Bremner and Tommy Flanagan talk about how they have kids back home before getting munched (presumably to induce us to care about their fates), and Sam Troughton doesn’t even get that far. Sanaa Lathan and Raoul Bova are utterly bland (“How do you say scared shitless in Italian?”), the former suffering the ignominy of playing a Ripley substitute but without a scrap of character to make her interesting rather than dull or chiding, and annoying simply for being a Ripley substitute. 


At least once there are no other humans left she has no one aside from a poor undeserving Predator to sound off at, telling them how it should be done. Weaver carries a genuine steeliness, even when Ripley is bricking herself. Lathan only ever seems like she’s faking it, and PWSA does nothing to suggest otherwise. Indeed, when the Predator removes its mask at the end, it’s such a non-dramatic moment, you half expect a delicate snog to ensue.


There’s the occasional nicely queasy moment – Bremner, cocooned, managing to shoot a facehugger, only for a pullback to reveal an entire nest of the critters emerging from eggs. On the other hand, if speed-ramped facehuggers are your thing, you’re quids-in here. And, while there are still too many shots of CGI aliens, Anderson also ensures there are some nicely-presented moments with the real, suited deal (although, the sequence where a Predator swings a xenomorph round and round by the leg before letting go is hilarious for all the wrong reasons). Added to which, the finale on the ice with the alien queen – a design I’m not massively keen on – has a certain rampaging-T-Rex-in-Jurassic Park effectiveness (but what, is it likely to drown down there under the ocean? Does it need to breathe? Is it still there now, sucking fucking plankton?) Of course, we were also treated to the birth of a predalien at the end, the stupidest idea ever (it’s an inane fangasm, as opposed to something that remotely adds to the alien’s mystique).


Cue Requiem. Which everyone tries to forget. Perhaps the most positive aspect of AVP: Alien vs. Predator is that it’s almost innocuous. It’s difficult to care about. It’s unthreatening and forgettable, and no one really treats it seriously. It isn’t even bad enough to take exception to.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

I will beat you like a Cherokee drum.

Fast & Furious 8
aka
The Fate of the Furious
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Fun. Brio. That’s what any director needs to bring a sense of to the ever more absurd Fast & Furious franchise at minimum. Action chops are definitely up there, but paramount is an active affinity with how plain silly the series is. And it’s a quality F Gary Gray doesn’t really have, or if he does, he’s never shown it, previously or here. Even his action leaves something to be desired (his The Italian Job remake is far superior in that regard). Which isn’t to suggest there isn’t fun to be had from Fast & Furious 8/The Fate of the Furious, but it’s much more sporadic and performance-based than the previous outing, lacking the unbridled gusto James Wan brought to Furious 7.


But maybe I’m wrong about this. While I’ve seen every instalment in the franchise (only the once, mind) I haven’t followed it avidly in order (1, 4, 5, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, I think, only the first and last two at the cinema), although, it isn’t as if the makers subjected the series to anything approaching a linear unfolding. I don’t claim to be an authority on its unlikely alchemy, and I’m not one of the faithful who attest to hidden depths explaining its phenomenal global appeal, those who might justify a soberer approach. I certainly don’t subscribe to its key word being family (and neither do mutual off-screen tiffers Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, by the sound of it), any more than I considered Paul Walker’s Bryan crucial or missed his absence (except that, if Scott Eastwood is intended to represent a nominal replacement, the makers need to go back to the casting couch, or virtual Walker drawing board). Not that Walker couldn’t be a strong presence, given the right material (check out Running Scared), but he was no more indelible than Diesel.


Yeah, I don’t think these movies would have any problem existing without their “parent” figure, particularly since Vin’s presence seems to rest on spouting sick-making platitudes when he isn’t offering an air of chrome-domed, gimlet-eyed impassivity, even when the scene doesn’t ask for it (like Tom Cruise, he isn’t someone you want to get bogged down with doing love scenes, or even suggesting a sense of emotional contentment). And even more so because, as one of original’s stars – although 2 Fast2Furious is surely more seminal, for introducing Tyrese and Ludacris – a paid-up producer and purported headliner, he sees fit to serve himself great chunks of storyline to show off the depths of his talent and the awesomeness of Dominic Torretto. Hence Furious 8’s Dom-goes-rogue plotline, which isn’t, to be fair to Vin, such a bad idea as far as mixing things up goes. Less so when it calls on Diesel to be heartfelt or raging (the funny thing is, the guy can act, even if steely resolve tends to be his best foot forward, as in the Riddicks), and particularly when he deems fit to have the plot turn on a baby (again this has a positive consequence in terms of another character’s subplot, but not when it comes to Dom getting all angsty).


The extent of my superficial interest in the series is underlined by only very, very vaguely remembering that Elena (Elsa Pataky) had appeared previously. That she actually showed up in 5, 6 and 7 before this just elicited a “Huh?” of stunned realisation. So I’m afraid I didn’t really share Dom’s pain. To a lesser degree, in that the makers don’t appear to know what to do with Ramsey, aside from introducing her to a pair of tight jeans, I also failed to recall that Nathalie Emmanuel (who I did recognise, but from Game of Thrones) was part of the team. On the subject of thankless female roles, I’m quite sure Charlize was paid handsomely – and her hairdresser, for sculpting her dread head – to kiss Vin and be one-note nasty Cipher, so she probably doesn’t need a whole lot of sympathy, but she should be commanding better roles than this. Then I remembered that she’s due to co-star in a romantic comedy with Seth Rogen, so I guess not.


The rogue Dom storyline is resolved in the least satisfying manner (roughly along the lines of “I knew he couldn’t be the bad guy!” when he saves his pals in an astonishing piece of driving whereby he manages to arrange for the bad guys’ rockets to blow up their own evil convoy), but the upside of Diesel being not much fun at all is that, once we get past the cloyingly preachy opening (something about acceptance, forgiveness, racing and polluting the ocean with the explosive remains of your cousin’s clapped-out car), there are significant stretches of the picture devoted to the rest of the team, and that’s really why I go to see a Fast & Furious movie.


Apparently, Vin, being a big insecure baby and needing a pacifier (see what I did there?), nixed a credits scene between Luke Hobbs (The Rock) and Deckard Shaw (The Stat). And apparently Universal, knowing gold dust when they snort it, have just greenlit a spinoff with the pair (the suggestion being Johnson has no wish to work with Vin again). It’s easy to see why, as their feuding banter in the early part of the picture, before, during and after a rather cool prison escape (only dented by Gray’s decision to go shakycam and thus render swathes of the action and geography incomprehensible) is easily the most satisfying element of Furious 8. Such that, when they make pals, amid a crummy joke, it’s rather disappointing: what you don’t want is spinoff where they’re best buds (Shaw joining the gang has also elicited a disconcerted response from Furious faithful, who will never forget the death of Han, never). The other highly satisfying element is Deckard subsequently diving onto a plane to save Vin’s baby from evil Cipher, despatching villains while cooing at the tiny tot (evidently inspired by Clive Owen starrer Shoot ‘Em Up). His brother (Luke Evans), I can take or leave, although even his presence is distinguished by the Stat constantly rebating him.


Indeed, it’s difficult to recall, so essential is the Stat’s deadpan delivery and in-your-face sense of humour, how this series got by previously. There’s something immensely satisfying about the swimmer-cum-actor being invited to double up as both action and comedy guy (he’s also by far the best thing about Spy). I’m not so sure about the Rock, on this evidence. He’s always giving 100%, but the material often isn’t up to the task. At least, when he isn’t reacting to the Stat calling him a musclebound moron. Teaching his daughter’s football team or, unforgivably, rehearsing the “Daddy’s gotta go to work” line from Furious 7 (the best moment in that movie, and a sign of creative bankruptcy to try and reformat/encore it) fall flat. He has some nice beats, shouting at Roman “Why are you always shouting?” during the ice chase and quipping “Nasty” after Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) drops a heavy into a propeller. And, hilariously, redirecting a torpedo shooting along the surface of a frozen lake with his bare hands (albeit, you just know Wan would have made the moment sing louder) but you notice how inconsistently serviced he is here, possibly because there’s more of him than last time.


Of the rest of the family, Rodriguez gets just enough to do to suggest she isn’t merely a spare wheel (much of it relating to look pained at Dom’s betrayal, and then elated at his non-betrayal), Tyrese is required to shout a lot, often about shrinkage, express dismay at not making Interpol’s 10 most wanted list (he languishes at 11, below Ramsey) and generally bounce agreeably off any given player (about the only time Eastwood makes an impression is when they’re trading insults), trying his hardest to make this seem more fun than the movie Gray is making (the beat where he’s skating on a car door, like the torpedo moment, would have been all the better with a zesty director shooting it). Ludacris is likewise always good value.


Kurt Russell brings effortlessly cool with him and seems right at home playing a character who’s enjoying himself and his status immensely.  Eastwood is carved out of pure wood, so his inexperienced, by-the-book character works, just about, when everyone is treating him horrendously but completely doesn’t when he’s asked to loosen up and has no personality to unveil. Helen Mirren makes a significant impression, but mostly because of her posh-lass-does-cock-ernee accent.


It seemed to me there was more conscious violence in this one, although I may just be misremembering previous instalments. Killing off Elena in front of Dom makes for a brutal moment, but would have more impact if any one cared about the character (admittedly, I’m assuming I’m not the only one who didn’t; Dom certainly seems to get over the life-changing incident quite easily). More than that, though, did the entire gang always kill people so cheerfully prior to this? I mean, I can see Deckard and Hobbs doing it (and Bryan, historically), because they’re professionals, but for the rest it seems a bit off. Shouldn’t they stick to daredevil driving and technical wizardry?


In terms of wizardry, script-wise and visually, Chris Morgan has penned every instalment since the fourth, and he manages the occasional coup here – the sudden attack on the base and stealing of the God’s Eye – but the remaining items on Cipher’s shopping list (nuclear football, nuclear submarine) are much less disciplined in conception, and Gray singularly fails to take up the slack in execution. There’s an enormous amount of carnage produced during the nuclear football sequence, but none of it engages (aside from the sight of a passenger leaping out of an out-of-control car into oncoming traffic). The one personal stakes moment, as the crew harpoon Vin’s car, is resolved in a manner that entirely fails to convince, a shame as it’s a great “now get out of that” (Morgan probably needed to devise it backwards). The ice lake climax just seems to go on and on, occasionally arousing a glimmer of interest, but lacking finesse in its choreography (Gray’s all over the shop) and failing to muster clear, dramatically-engaging goals for each character. When you’re watching it, you’re waiting to get back to the Stat on the plane.


Certainly, if one of the lessons from Fast & Furious 8 is that the series doesn’t need to rely on Vin, and doing so will probably be to its ultimate detriment, a more important one is that they should be ensuring another key team member, the director, will lift Furious 9 to the level of the gloriously demented the series deserves. Gray’s the most pedestrian director these movies have seen since the first two instalments, and it’s moved on a long way since such (relatively) grounded adventures. There’s also the question of what happens if the Rock and the Stat are off doing their own thing. I guess bring in some replacement larger-than-life characters; there’ll still be Diesel, keeping things real, talking up his serious Dom arcs, waxing seriously lyrical about family and looking seriously uncomfortable when he’s called upon to crack a smile.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, 21 April 2017

I know what I am. I’m the magic man.

Legion
Season One

(SPOILERS) I suspect it’s no coincidence that my favourite comic book adaptations tend to be ones that don’t pay an awful lot of heed to staying within standardised genre limits, be it Tony Stark out of the suit with a kid sidekick of Iron Man Three, the altered states romping of Hulk or now the pan-fried head trip of Legion. Ironically, the latter was co-produced with Marvel Television, whose Netflix shows have been on the determinedly moribund side. Indeed, Legion feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison, if perhaps lacking that certain something that would truly send it into the stratosphere.


That’s partly because, however stylistically daring Noah Hawley’s series is, however beguilingly confused the mind of its protagonist becomes, and however evidently not in thrall it is to offering straightforward superheroics (of which there are very little), Legion definitely does conform to the genre’s limitations of defined supervillainy and quantified narrative devices and solutions. I don’t especially care that David Haller (Dan Stevens) is Charles Xavier’s son (and even less whether or not Patrick Stewart will cameo), or that Big Bad the Shadow King is an established entity of comic lore; I’m only really interested in how Hawley uses the character as a leaping off point to do his own thing. And when he’s doing his own thing, more often than not, Legion is a great show, firing on all cylinders in a not dissimilar fashion to Joss Whedon series of – now – old (say, the last couple of seasons of Angel), but with added visual aplomb. As such, the series is much more interesting when exploring David’s uncertain mindscape than when it settles into the well-ploughed terrain of a card-carrying evil mutant with standard nefarious motivations.


Hawley has namechecked a host of inspirational elements, from David Lynch to Pink Floyd (Sydney Barret, actually using Floyd in the last episode) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to Terrence Malick to Breaking Bad (inevitable?) to, in terms of design aesthetic, “a 1964 Terence Stamp movie” and Hannibal (a show I didn’t care for at all, apart from its palette), and you can see those elements, but they tend to evidence that there isn’t anything fundamentally altered or askew in Legion’s construction; it’s all surface trappings. As talented as Hawley is in composing his narratives, it rather makes you think in retrospect that inserting a UFO into the last season of Fargo wasn’t a wild and whacky idea but rather his idea of what a wild and whacky person’s idea would be.


That’s why I keep coming back to Whedon when I think of this show, both in terms of its broad, cartoonish characterisations (albeit fortunately absent the more egregious smart-mouthed pop culture quipping) and core Scooby gang of heroes, but also in its very measured, calculated approach to twists and reveals that, no matter how much they exert a grip, never truly take you out of the box, even when they apparently have; you’ll always end up back in a safe place, even when you think there’s been a game changer (albeit, the final season of Angel comes very close in places and is certainly something one couldn’t go too far wrong in aiming for).  There’s a comfortable, finite quality to the design of their TV universes that is only underlined by limitations of scale and budget (Legion’s world is a very limited one, which works like gangbusters when trapped within the confines of a mental institution, less so when trying to depict the environment outside).


One can expect too much of a show of course, and the willingness of Legion to set itself “out there” initially was inevitably, I think, going to result in some backtracking. It needs to bear some resemblance to the Marvel brand from which it has spun off, so if Hawley had really intended to go the “full Lynch” I doubt if he’d ever have got the green light. So too, there’s no mistaking what we have here for the philosophical probing of the oft-vilified Damon Lindelof, or any kind of interrogation of the nature of society and one’s place in it, such that when I’ve seen comments invoke The Prisoner I’m wondering if they’ve only seen the remake (even in terms of design, the comparison is far off the mark).


Even Legion’s take on mental illness fully embraces a frizzy, pop aesthetic, ready to discard and embrace it as the mood takes the writers (in the penultimate episode, David’s rational mind appears to cast off doubts of his afflicted state with the boxing up of the Shadow King, but it would make for a very pedestrian subsequent season if he becomes entirely stable, particularly since Legion’s main appeal thus far has been the untapped hollows of his mind). A better yardstick, both in terms of losing one’s marbles and design, might be Theodore J Flicker’s The President’s Analyst, but to pass muster in that regard, Legion would have to take on board a satirical element, and thus far there’s scant evidence the show is about anything beyond its ability to pull narrative rugs and stage wildly invigorating dance routines/musical set pieces.


Cary: You have a very large amygdala.
David: Thank you.

And yet, many times this over the tired, bloated Netflix shows. From episode to episode (and I admit I watched this over a couple of nights, rather than on first broadcast, so it may not have percolated in quite the manner it did for those who saw it the “traditional” way), Legion continued to surprise and impress, even if was mostly on a stylistic level – something that should never be underestimated, especially when style is so often a conservative thing on TV, even at its most luxuriant – flipping in the first episode from David’s interior, medicated state to the reveal of Sydney’s particular skillset and then providing one of those Escher-like potentialities that, alas, only go so far (“This is your memory of the day you called the hospital. Not the actual day, I’m inside your memory”), as Syd warns him inside his mind. Like Episode Six, where the Shadow King is controlling the state of play, returning us to the opening passages of the first episode, there’s a virtuosity on display here only diffused by our gradually becoming fully cognisant of the limitations of how crazy Hawley’s willing to get. Which is, no further than this being a game played. When a character asks “Could we still be in David’s mind?” in the fourth episode, the answer is: this show’s not really willing to turn into the season closer of Twin Peaks for its entire duration, so no.


In terms of characterisation, then, the heightened quality goes to emphasise how little substance there is to anyone, as opposed to Fargo, where the broad strokes can be underplayed and so given more resonance. Rachel Keller made a big impact in a relatively small role in Fargo, but here, after the first episode, Syd doesn’t really say or do all that much to make an impact; instead, she tends to be defined by David. It’s all downhill from discovering her superpower. Likewise, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) does little of consequence after the second episode, besides firing a machine gun. Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) Loudermilk are much more consistently effective due to their interdependent relationship, one that feels like the most Whedonesque thing here, particularly when ructions develop, but they’re still defined by their visual sense (Kerry fighting heavies while Cary mimes her actions in the lab, playing mental games as patients in Clockworks). Better is Melanie (Jean Smart) and her distress over the inability of Oliver (Jermaine Clement) to remember her, his wife.


Oliver: May I introduce you to my friend, Jules Verne.

Indeed, Oliver’s astral hangout, and method of getting out and about by means of a virtual diving suit, is the most appealingly batty conceit in the show, such that, as with David’s undefined discord early on, the series deflates a little once he becomes corporeal once more. Clement is wonderful, of course, encouraged to indulge both his penchant for singing (notably in the final episode, when he takes off after a rendition of If I Ruled the World) and his ear for the absurd (“Too bad” he comments on being told bras are back, before recovering with “How do you feel about beat poetry?”) and even precisely underplaying the tragic beat of remembering Melanie just as the Shadow King is about to take possession of him. If the series is going to maintain a level of safety in not really pushing its capacity to go the full Lynch, it could use more of this kind of goofiness of ideas and visuals.


David: And you’re British.
David’s Rational Mind: Like I said, I’m your rational mind.

Stevens’ performance is masterfully modulated, of course, although we’re occasionally led by the nose when it’s entirely unnecessary (does he really need to start wearing black when the Shadow King is assuming an influence in the fifth episode?), and the bugs crawling through the fruit are very well-worn “evil under the skin” cliché. The “revelations” concerning his adoption (Professor X) and the Shadow King never really take on a compelling quality, any more than the standard motivational subplot concerning the threat to his sister (Katie Aselton). It’s lucky then, that much of the unfolding of the reveal elements occurs in the sixth and seventh episodes, set mostly within the mental landscape of the Shadow King’s version of Clockworks, and that the means of exposition (David conversing with his rational mind, laid out on an animated blackboard) are pocked with knowing humour (“Boo-hoo. Focus” instructs his rational mind at one point. “You’re right... I am pretty. I am loved” responds David).


Aside from Mackenzie Gray’s permed Tom Waits-alike The Eye, the expressly monstrous aspects of Legion failed to really hold my attention, certainly not in terms of offering the stuff of nightmares. “The Devil with Yellow Eyes”, announced almost as soon as the show starts but revealed a little later, just isn’t that scary, looking rather like a Sin City reject by way of the obese vampire from Blade, while the picture book cut-out The Angriest Boy in the World, The Babadook by way of Frank Sidebottom, is similarly derivative and lacking in a real frisson.


On the other hand, when Aubrey Plaza is revealed as the embodiment of the Shadow King, leading to such sequences as her dancing around her office to Nina Simone’s I Feel Good or – in possibly the standout passage of the season –menacing the hospital inmates a la Tim Burton meets Robert Smith in silent movie fashion, complete with caption cards, Legion shifts into the positively inspired (but again, it’s the kind of inspired that gave us Buffy’s Hush or Once More (With Feeling)). The fake reality is an oft-used trope, to the extent that it might be labelled a tired device rather than the relatively fresh one it one was (say, around when The X-Files used it in Field Trip), so interesting things being done with it tend to stand out.


Final episodes as epilogues can be a relief when a show is as highly strung as Game of Thrones. I’m not sure it succeeds so much here. Some of the visuals are nice (the tree of soldiers), but the decision to switch focus completely to a character not seen since the opener (Hamish Linklater’s Clark), now with burns over 40% of his body following the swimming pool incident, is the sort of perspective switch Lindelof might have pulled after a whole season of Lost. It’s mildly interesting, but it smacks more of a self-conscious device than something equipped with sincerity, substance or intent to really explore a “bad guy”, despite David’s protestations that he wants to avoid a war and Hawley’s desire not to “send a message that all conflict can only be resolved through battle”. As such, I mostly had in mind the first Austin Powers’ depiction of the family of an evil henchman having to deal with his offhand death.


Added to which, David’s abduction in the mid-credits scene just felt silly. Rather than a cliffhanger, it left a taste of anti-climax and probably would have been better cut out completely, really. Season One certainly delivered the goods visually, then (and in the case of the Cloud Atlas-inspired exploding kitchen, several times on repeat, to get its money worth), and musically (one wonders how much a soundtrack album including the likes of The Who, Serge Gainsbourg, The Rolling Stones, Jane’s Addiction, Thomas Dolby, Pink Floyd and T-Rex would cost to licence, which probably explains why only Jeff Russo’s incidental music is available). I’m mildly intrigued at what Hawley has in store for the second run, but I’m also wary that he hasn’t now established too level a playing field for an ostensibly antic series, and that it may lack the potential to truly surprise. I’ll happily keep coming back for the musical numbers, but I’m nursing the hope it can be something more than that.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, 17 April 2017

She continues to make us all very proud.

Alien Resurrection
(1997)

(SPOILERS) At least Alien3 has its die-hard defenders, particularly with the advent of The Assembly Cut. Alien Resurrection appears destined to remain the unloved, ugly newborn of the original quartet, a sequel that’s full of ideas (probably more than the rest put together), but fails to deliver them in an entirely satisfying way. It doesn’t even end properly, something that could at least be relied upon previously (with the consequence of “now get-out of that rewriting” for the sequels), making the fact that it was never followed up additionally cruel (Neill Blomkamp even wanted to retcon it and Alien3 out of existence; fortunately, Ridley appears to have nixed his gorilla fingers). On top of which, Joss Whedon has lambasted it; whatever is wrong with Alien Resurrection is not his fault, let that be clear to everyone. But you know what? I kind of like the movie. I don’t think it’s great by any means, but if Alien3 is more tonally of a piece, then Alien Resurrection is just flat-out weirder and more interesting.


I can’t say I was especially impressed with it on first viewing, however. The newborn was a particular sticking point, and still is. And for all the thematic ideas thrown in, there’s a schematic quality to the structure that really Alien Resurrection feel like the first of the series to come in the aftermath of Alien videogames. But I like the picture’s goofy tone, love the visual sensibility Jean-Pierre Jeunet and cinematographer Darius Khondji bring to the table (of the sequels, this wipes the floor with the others in visual lustre), and on a scene-by-scene basis, it offers some of the most engaging moments in the series. It just doesn’t hang together very well, even the extended Special Edition cut (which I prefer, despite the daft CGI bug that kicks it off).


This is not, however, Joss Whedon’s fault. Or so he’d have you believe. I’m a fan of much that Whedon has contributed to TV and movies, but there’s little doubt he’s a bit over-protective of his oeuvre, launching into those he perceives to have messed with his creations (another being the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie). In the case of Alien Resurrection, his self-righteousness is hardly justified, particularly as many of the picture’s problems revolve around the fingerprints of his particular style of character and dialogue; if anything, we’re lucky to have Jeunet throwing that into relief as much as he can. I can only imagine how generic and knock-off the picture would have ended up if Paul W Anderson, for example (who was approached, and of whose Alien vs. Predator Whedon has suggested he liked), had been employed (in the run-up to its making, I was most intrigued when Danny Boyle was flirting with it, although he and John Hodge ultimately decided they couldn’t thrash out a concept the studio agreed with.)


Maybe that’s its biggest problem. Alien Resurrection can’t escape the feeling of a picture produced by corporate mandate, and whatever the pros and cons of Aliens and Alien3, they bear the intent of makers who had a clear idea of what they wanted to bring to the screen. Jeunet happily admits he tackled the project as a director for hire (“a very long commercial”), so while he layers it in terms of design and tone, he isn’t invested in it conceptually. And Whedon is simply pulling a rabbit out of the hat as justification for Ripley’s return. The plus side is that he manages to run with it, making it coherent thematically while only occasionally resorting to the glib throwaways of his character building; we’re certainly lucky this is set hundreds of years in the future, as it limits his yen for pop culture dialogue, but unfortunately his general manner and cadence are insufficiently curtailed.


It’s notable, and notably odd, that the most oft-quoted Whedon take on Alien Resurrection is that he wrote it as “playful, tongue in cheek” or “camp parody” and the director chose to “play it straight”. You can even find reviews built around this say-so. But such a reading simply doesn’t make any sense, to the extent that I wonder if someone had their wires crossed or was being purposefully misleading. I cannot see how anyone would mistake what Jeunet is doing with Alien Resurrection as playing it straight; virtually his every choice is in the service of exaggeration and an inclination to go OTT, be it in performance, design or editing. Besides which, you have to ask why Whedon, as a disciple of the series, would want to undermine it? Jeunet’s another matter; he can’t resist bringing his Gallic sensibility to bear (there are times this feels more like a kindred spirit to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element than a part of the Alien universe). As he said, “I can’t avoid humour”.


So, here’s what Joss definitely had to say:

Whedon: Uh...you know, it wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending, it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines...mostly...but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script...but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.


He also called it “A shitty Alien movie with my name on it” and gripes about Brad Dourif and JE Freeman’s casting as ruining the mystery of their characters. With all those sour grapes – a spoiled vineyard’s worth – on Joss’ part, you’d assume he’d written something dynamite (because, as he admits, they didn’t fundamentally change his script; it’s still there in the final product).


Ripley: I’m finding a lot of things funny lately.

Yet one can hear his glib dialogue tripping off Ripley’s tongue, as if she’s been siphoned from one of his TV show or Marvel (interpretations of) characters, from her commenting on the alien queen (“You mean, my baby?, I’m the monster’s mother”), what she did when she last ran into the aliens (“I died”),  to her death ("I get that a lot" in response to "I thought you were dead"; she's not Snake Plissken, for goodness sake) to the Betty (“This piece of shit is even older than I am”), or just tired lines (“Who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?”; “Was it everything you hoped for?” on climbing out of the floor through the remains of Elgyn) to her unique appeal (“They’re curious. I’m the latest thing”).


Frankly, there’s far too much of the trademark Whedon smirk-talk (“Must be a chick thing”, “Earth, man. What a shithole”; “You’re programmed to be an asshole?”; “Since you were born without balls”; “All Aliens please proceed to level one”; the terrible, throwaway Walmart gag, making the series as disposable as everything else Joss lays his hands on – and as ephemeral as the cut idea the station is growing cannabis to finance its research: really? 200 years from now?) and, in general, the manner in which every character resorts to crudities is reminiscent of the constant cries of “Fuck!” in Alien3. If Jeunet isn’t playing up to Whedon’s predilections, that can only be a good thing. Indeed, the best compliment you can pay Alien Resurrection in that regard is that it doesn’t unspool like it’s a Whedon piece, even if the Betty crew’s similarities to Firefly have been pointed out.


I should stress that I’m not saying cloned Ripley shouldn’t have a sense of humour (handing Cal the alien innards as a souvenir is amusingly twisted), but you reduce her if her strangeness, and the altered state of her rebirth, is continually undercut by Whedon’s brand of one-liners. The humour I like in Alien Resurrection is very much the offbeat attitude Jeunet brings to it, the aspect Whedon has no control over, be it through casting or line delivery or staging. Likewise, the sensual undercurrents here are all Jeunet (Ripley and the newborn, Ripley and Cal, Ripley luxuriating in the alien nest, the glistening, fecund aliens themselves, even Elgyn and Hillard’s relationship), something John Frizzell said he consciously emphasised in his (very good) score.


Jeunet casts the film wholly with an eye to colourful characterisation (the only decision he had no say in, besides Weaver obviously, Noonie, shows in this regard). They give substance to their 2-D roles in a manner that recalls Cameron’s Aliens, but with an added penchant for zesty ham. No one is especially likeable in Alien Resurrection (even Ripley), but they’re all memorable (even Cal). Dan Hedaya plays General Perez as an imbecile so slow off the mark he doesn’t even realise he’s dead until he perplexedly catches sight of his brains in his hand (Hedaya’s hirsuteness, however, is perhaps the most horrifying sight in the movie). 


Fellow Coen Brothers veteran Freeman delivers Dr Wren as odiously as he possibly can, in what devolves into the Burke role (trying to get away and leaving the rest behind). Ron Pearlman, who previously worked with Jeunet on City of the Lost Children, embraces his inner oafish vulgarian, making it all the more surprising he makes it through the carnage intact (his funniest moment might be shooting a spider). Michael Wincott surprises for not being cast as the villain (amoral, certainly), and Jeunet lucky charm Dominique Pinon adds further texture to the ensemble. I’m also always struck by Kim Flowers in this, and left wondering what happened to her career.


And then there’s Leland Orser offering a terrifically dedicated performance as a doomed, alien-infested walking dead, managing to tread the line between terrified and humorous with great skill; of particular note is the scene where the alien appears about to burst forth, before the moment passes and Purvis pushes away the guns aimed at his head. Most gloriously ridiculous is when it actually does burst forth and he attacks Wren, the alien going through him and out of the doctor (incorporating a CGI dive down Purvis’ throat to witness the alien creature stirring – Jeunet loves his slapstick crash-zooms). It’s very patchy, but it’s so wacky it’s hard to resist.


Gediman: She is giving birth for you, Ripley, and now she is perfect.

My absolute favourite performance is Brad Dourif as Gediman, though, furnishing his mad scientist with just enough genuine enquiry to make him not sympathetic, but not reprehensible either. He’s consistent, that’s what’s great about him; even when he’s cocooned, he’s still analysing, marvelling at what is, to any sane person, a horror show (“You are a beautiful butterfly” he informs the newborn). The scene where he is baring his teeth at the alien, misguidedly believing he can find a means to not just understand but control the star beast, is fascinating, the picture finding itself on a genuinely different and distinctive track during these passages (and it’s in this area where Whedon shines, rather than with his quick quips).


Dourif is masterful at playing someone who is fascinated by Ripley (willing to interact and discuss with her, rather than treat her purely as an object), and by the alien – he’s the most interesting character in the movie (and, like Dance in Alien3, you miss him when he disappears and perk up briefly when he returns). The actor doesn’t need to be given funny lines to being amusing; it’s all in his character’s unbridled, ghoulish enthusiasm. Although, there is the scene where the alien hand grabs him from below for yuks stakes. It isn’t quite Dallas in the ducts as far as shock encounters go: closer to Gremlins.


Perez: You brought a terrorist aboard a military vessel.

And then, of course, there’s Noonie. I tend to be a defender of Winona – forever, in fact – but when she’s miscast, she’s as miscast as prime Keanu, not because she appears plankish but because if she’s not (wasn’t) the ingénue, she’s playing something her physicality and manner isn’t up to. So here you get a synthetic that doesn’t make any sense – nervy, terrified, whiny, but who also apparently took on the determination to put an end to Ripley when she accessed the main frame. She’s a hodgepodge of a character, Whedon looking for something to mark out a different artificial person to those we’ve seen previously and only succeeding in making one less singular (all he’s really got is that he’s doing a trademark “strong” female role).


The only aspect of Cal that is artificial is that she doesn’t die when she’s fake-out killed (oh, and she’s plugged into the ship, which is called – way to go, Joss - Father), which seems like a twist reverse-engineered into a character. Mostly, she’s there to respond to the sexual innuendoes of the male members of the crew, or just to other characters generally, with a less than scintillating riposte (“Fuck you!”) or make banal remarks (“Why don’t you just kill yourself?”) Or treat Ripley as a vaguely surrogate mother when she’s got over wanting to kill her. It’s a shame – I remember rooting for Ryder when she was announced, after all, here were two of my favourite genre actresses sharing the screen, and she evidently loves the series and overcame challenges to make it (her fear of water after a childhood drowning incident) – but Cal is undoubtedly the weakest link in the characters, as is Ryder in the cast.


Ripley: No matter how bad the dreams get, when I wake up, it’s always worse.

Despite his feeding Weaver some lousy lines, Whedon does succeed in taking cloned Ripley to interesting places. He commented that the alienness of the character grew in consultation with the star, and while I don’t think Alien Resurrection succeeds in defining her clone (that was for the aborted Alien 5, presumably) it creates a fertile ground for material. Ripley’s central to some of the best scenes in the movie, from the grandstanding basketball court encounter, establishing her new fearless, barbell-resistant persona (and famous for Weaver actually getting a slam dunk) in the face of a gang of hard nuts, to the beautifully grim scene in the cloning room, as the sight of various grotesque stillborns suspended in glass lead to a nearly-not-quite mutation pleading “Kill me”.


The only reservation I have about this is that, given Ripley’s compassion, is she really going to condemn “herself” to a horrible fiery end? Surely blowing her clone’s head off would be much more humane? Perhaps it was in there because you have to have a flame thrower in an Alien movie. There’s even a (intentionally? You never know in this movie) funny moment where Ripley gets a face hugger in the face and reacts to it like Frank Drebin being attacked by a towel in The Naked Gun.


While some of the ideas Whedon comes up with are simply logical for the cynical-corporate environment of the series (the Betty’s cargo being stolen cryo sleepers, taken to a ship outside of regulated space), others are genuinely inspired. I’ve mentioned Dourif’s experiments (“So, you’re a fast learner”), and the scene in which two aliens escape their cell by killing another and exiting through the hole in the floor is a lovely bit of ingenuity that suggests their smarts in a believable way. Less so pressing the red button on Dourif, although that’s at least off-the-wall.


And, as set pieces go, the underwater sequence is a bravura piece of staging and execution. One might argue it is let down slightly by the CGI aliens used in some of the shots, but I’d argue they work reasonably well in this environment; it’s in corridors or up ladders that they’re rendered in a particularly unflattering light (having them spit CGI acid is an odd decision also). Where they’re traditional guys in suits, however, the creatures are their most effective since the original; the black, glistening look of the creatures in Dourif’s cells are arresting in a manner the xenomorph hasn’t been since it was scaring the bejesus out of Jonesy that first time. The alien queen also looks better than in Aliens, although I’ve never been overly keen on the design; each new maker wants to lay their stamp on Giger’s original, and each variation achieves diminishing returns. Until, eventually, you get a Predalien, God help us.


Which brings us to… the newborn. I mean, it sort of works. Sort of, in that Jeunet was aiming at something unsettling and freakish, with an emotionally fragile, infant component, and all of that comes across. The real eyes achieve the intended effect, even if the snuffle snout is a step too far. The problem is that, while the design is works that sense, it’s still a terrible design; from The Making of the Alien Anthology documentary, it was clear that the crew weren’t coming up with what the director wanted, but the design that eventually inspired Jeunet was still way better (because it was alien) than what we have. Weird and grotesque simply isn’t enough; it should be uncanny if you want to continue the original’s impact. What we get is a killer mutant baby that is odd and ugly but also feels derivative; it killing its mother (rather than grandma) is perhaps the highpoint, the low being sucked out of an airlock through its bottom. To the extent that its presence works, it’s mostly down to Weaver selling the emotional content of those scenes.


Alien Resurrection has much I enjoy in it, but it ultimately feels to me that Whedon never nailed the screenplay, much as he’s wont to blame the execution. He has a series of strong vignettes, but they’re hung on a linear narrative that feels like a greatest hits package, that might have come out of the Alien Trilogy computer game and characters and motifs in the previous instalments. Running around corridors as per Aliens, trying to reach the ship in time, up against aliens and turncoats and androids, showing the cocooned character that always ended up getting cut before (Dallas, Burke), even returning to Earth (always mooted). It’s Alien fan fiction.


The strongest element is the one forced on Whedon by the return of Weaver (he originally had Newt coming back), and he makes the most hay with that limitation, but even there there’s a sense that the picture fails to meet its ambitions. At least in the Special Edition Ripley makes it back to Earth, making it preferable for that alone; it would be a shame, whatever Ridley Scott’s personal views on this entry, to forget about it now it seems he’s in sole charge of where the franchise goes with umpteen potential sequels he may or may not helm before he hits 100. There may be a feeling, though, that with two successive imperfect pictures, they don’t want to return to Ripley well. When Scott talks about another trilogy, I presume he means post- this quartet, since forever living behind them would be a cop out (something Star Trek has been doing for 15 years now). The challenge would be to move forward and make Alien Resurrection meaningful to the series, even given that it looks destined to remain its greatest tonal anomaly.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.