Saturday, July 19, 2014

#186: Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Where do I start with Aliens, a movie I've seen probably a dozen times since I was a child? I'm a fan of the whole series of films (my wife is an even bigger fan) including the underrated third and fourth installments, each one made by a visually distinctive director continuing the story in a non-derivative way, but, like most people, I'll concede that the first two are the best. But, which one is the best of the best? Like Beatles vs. Stones, your answer to Alien vs. Aliens is likely to tell you more about yourself than any Myers-Briggs nonsense.
I'm an Alien guy, and though I've come around to loving it, I admit to being a little bored by Aliens on my first viewing. I had a childhood bias against action movies. My genres of choice were horror, comedy, and crime thrillers, while action movies were the domain of the macho rednecks and jocks I grew up around and couldn't wait to escape. Aliens seemed like a big, loud action movie with monsters instead of terrorists. I liked the first Alien's atmosphere, suspense, and Giger landscapes and was a little pissed that the sequel was about space Marines blowing shit up even though I was still totally psyched about the aliens. I've since learned to love '70s and '80s action movies (especially in comparison to the spatially incoherent CGI hellscape we're trapped in now), and the substantial pleasures of Aliens revealed themselves to me on subsequent viewings.
Those pleasures include James Cameron's undeniable visual skills, Sigourney Weaver, Bill "Game Over, Man" Paxton, Carrie "They Mostly Come Out At Night, Mostly" Henn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser getting munched by an alien, a slow build that turns into an extended tour-de-force of action and suspense, and the goddamn aliens, man. I mean, it's right there in the title. The movie's a bit long at almost two-and-a-half hours, but most of that running time is earned.
I'm sure most of you know the story. Ripley and her cat, Jonesy, are floating through space in their sleep chamber after getting away from the aliens in the first movie. No one picks them up for 57 years, and unfortunately for Ripley, she's rescued by another slimy corporation, represented here by the weaselly little shit Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). For the past 20 years, the planet Ripley and her crew had to get the eff away from has been inhabited by space colonists working for Carter's space corporation, but their space signals have recently been lost, so Ripley, Carter, and some space Marines get their asses to space to find out what the hell is space happening. I'll stop doing that now.
Of course, things go wrong, the corporation is lying, and aliens abound, and our extended action/horror/suspense sequence begins. Ripley also finds the sole survivor, Newt (Carrie Henn, in her only film role, and who is currently a teacher in California), a young girl whose family has been wiped out by aliens. Cameron, in only his third film (after Piranha II and The Terminator), demonstrates his mastery of something-for-everybody Hollywood politics. We get evil corporations for the liberals to shake their fists at and Marines blowing shit up to give the conservatives that tingly feeling and Ripley gets to be both a badass feminist action hero and a nurturing maternal figure. Financially well played, Cameron. Despite my cynicism, I have to give Cameron credit. After showing what he could do with The Terminator, he handles the much bigger canvas of Aliens with confidence, skill, and talent, and even I have to admit Aliens develops its handful of main characters more extensively than Ridley Scott did in the first film, despite his casting of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. 
I love Bill Paxton's goofy-ass portrayal of Hudson, Weaver as Ripley, and Carrie Henn's Newt. Did I mention I also love the aliens? And though True Lies is an anthology of Ronald Reagan's masturbation fantasies, Terminator 2 pioneered the CGI I despise so much, Titanic gave us that fucking Celine Dion song (I admit to liking the movie when I finally gave it a chance eight years after its release), and from the ten minutes I've seen of it, Avatar looks like an episode of Thundercats on bad hallucinogens, I will gladly admit that James Cameron knows how to direct action and Aliens is one of his best films.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

#185: The Avenging Conscience (D.W. Griffith, 1914)

From Fred Olen Ray to D.W. Griffith in a single bound, that's how we do it at the Decapitated Zombie Vampire Bloodbath. Griffith is one of the early masters of film, making hundreds of silents before ending his career with two sound films, and he pioneered many techniques still in use today and streamlined and fine-tuned many others. Unfortunately, he's presently better known as the racist director of the incredibly racist (even by the mainstream social standards of the time) The Birth of a Nation, and he deserves some of that scorn, but the reputation of that technically brilliant, morally disgusting film overshadows his huge filmography, which includes gem after gem (including, oddly, two great anti-discrimination films made around the same time, Broken Blossoms and Intolerance). I'm able to compartmentalize the ugly parts of great artists, throwing out the bathwater and leaving the baby, and separate the flawed human from the work. Alternatively, this could be too easy for me because I'm a straight white man in the United States who doesn't know what it's like to be discriminated against based on my demographic, but I still have a lot of admiration for Griffith as an artist.
Fortunately, The Avenging Conscience can be enjoyed without troubling your own conscience. Griffith's then-modern update of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart is a sleek, effective psychological horror story and morality play and a smaller-scale warmup to the expressive compositional beauty and narrative experimentation he was about to achieve on a larger scale in the next few years. For me (and for a lot of other movie buffs), silent films are the most difficult films to get lost in, at least initially, but it's often worth the investment. They can at first seem quaint, removed, artifacts from a distant past rather than living works of art, but Griffith is one of that handful of silent film directors that hooks me almost immediately (that group includes Murnau, Keaton, Chaplin, the Lang of Spies and Mabuse, Stroheim, and the early works of Hitchcock and Ozu). Though The Avenging Conscience is an early taste of greater achievements to come, Griffith's rhythms, pacing, and sense of humor are fully in place here.
Though the mainstream media act like Wes Craven's Scream was the first film to reference previous work, filmmakers have been doing it since the beginning. In The Avenging Conscience, Griffith uses The Tell-Tale Heart as the inspiration for a new story, and fills it with nods to Annabel Lee, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Cask of Amontillado as well. In Griffith's story, a fatherless child is born to a woman who dies giving birth. The boy is raised by his devoted uncle and is happy until he reaches adulthood. Now a man itching to get on with his life, the nephew (Henry B. Walthall) has fallen in love with a woman (Blanche Sweet), but his uncle (the delightfully named Spottiswoode Aitken) forbids the relationship. He demands his nephew stay single for the next two years until he has a career fully in place and that a woman would only ruin his future. This doesn't sit well with the Poe-obsessed nephew and his girlfriend, but they sadly capitulate to the uncle and break up.
The nephew turns into a gloomy sourpuss until a glance at a spider catching a fly and some ants swarming a larger insect give him an idea. Yes, he will kill his uncle and get back together with his lady love. He strangles uncle and bricks him up in the wall, resuming his relationship with his girlfriend. His happiness is short-lived, however, as the guilt torments him so intensely he sees visions of his ghostly uncle. A trip to the sanitarium doesn't help, and he's soon seeing visions of not just his uncle, but also Jesus, Moses, owls, witches, demons, and skeletons. Some of those scenes have an almost David Lynchian feel to them, with lots of smoke and disappearing and reappearing demonic visions.
These scenes are great, and I didn't even mention the opportunistic drunken Italian (maybe there's some weird prejudice here, too) and the detective who is obsessed with smelling fresh roses. Griffith somehow manages to wring a happy ending out of this darkness, which feels a little forced but is also kind of sweet. Despite the smaller canvas here, Griffith captures some beautiful shots, particularly scenes of the nephew wandering the fields and some of the ghostly visions. Griffith also gets the most out of the expressive faces of his cast, and he's just as effective with his long and medium shots as he is with his closeups. This is a nice little movie, and I enjoyed it just as much on this second viewing as I did on my first a few years ago.