Friday, June 2, 2017

Worth Mentioning - Scream. Run. Hide.

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


Aliens, a werewolf, zombies, and the return of a classic gorilla.


ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

After spending more than thirty years away from the franchise he started with 1979's Alien, director Ridley Scott has become determined to take ownership of the series, and he's doing so in a way that I couldn't be less interested in. Beginning with 2012's Prometheus, Scott is crafting a series of prequels to the original Alien. I don't particularly want to know in the lead-up to the events of Alien; the mystery surrounding the discovery of the alien eggs in that film added to its effectiveness. While Alien: Covenant doesn't directly tie in to Alien just yet, since Scott wants to fit in some more movies before then, it does answer questions I never asked and never would have wanted answered.

Alien showed us the corpse a giant alien being that became known as the Space Jockey, and Prometheus informed us that the Space Jockey was part of a race known as the Engineers. Prometheus also revealed that the Engineers are responsible for creating life on planet Earth, which was a story element I never expected to see within an Alien movie. In that film, the Engineers also had some very nasty things in their possession, things that could create monsters, and when a science expedition from Earth went to a distant planet in search of humanity's creators, the people on that expedition instead found only monsters and death.

Some of the monster action in Prometheus happened on accident, and some of it was instigated by David, an android (played by Michael Fassbender) who sees himself as superior to the people who created him. At the end of Prometheus, David and the film's heroine Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) set off to the Engineers' home planet, Shaw still wanting answers from her creators.


Alien: Covenant picks up ten years after Prometheus (which is still twenty years before Alien), and if you were hoping to see a continuation of Shaw's quest, if you wanted to see her getting answers from the Engineers, you should put those expectations aside before you even start watching this sequel. Shaw is tossed aside while David takes center stage, and he doesn't want to hear anything the Engineers have to say. He has spent the time it took to reach their home planet experimenting with the materials the Engineers left behind on the Prometheus planet, genetically engineering a new breed of monsters. Upon arrival at the Engineer planet, David unleashes his creation onto the Engineers and appears to successfully wipe them all out within minutes. Prometheus did not receive an enthusiastic reception, so Scott and writers Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan, and Dante Harper cut its dangling threads in the most simplistic way possible.

Instead of delving deeper into the whole Engineer / humanity's creators thing, Covenant instead just has a ship full of intergalactic settlers being drawn to the Engineer planet long after David's massacre and finding the android living there alone, being all creepy, as if he has just stepped out of a gothic horror movie.

Within minutes of setting foot on the planet's surface, these people start getting infected with David's creations. Soon monstrous aliens are ripping out of human bodies, the creatures that emerge going on to relentlessly pursue the other humans. Most of the creatures we see in action are new monsters called Neomorphs, but eventually we do get some of the monsters that carried the original Alien franchise, the classic Xenomorph.


Yes, Alien: Covenant tells us exactly where the Xenomorphs came from. They were created by this android David at the end of the 21st century. This completely disregards the history of the monsters as presented in Alien vs. Predator, where we saw that Predators were hunting Xenomorphs on Earth centuries ago. Say what you will about AVP, but personally, I much prefer to think that the Xenomorphs are just a species of creature that have existed for a long time, somewhere out there in space. They're just one alien life form out there of many, and the folks in Alien were just unlucky enough to be far enough out in space to stumble into their territory. I didn't know they were created by a deranged android, and I don't really like knowing that they were. I don't want to have this back story in my head when I'm watching Alien '79.

Overall, Covenant is a very standard creature that I didn't find to be all that entertaining. It just goes through the motions, and I got no thrills from the Neomorph / Xenomorph scenes. For the climax, a Xenomorph gets on board a ship in space, and Scott brings that sequence to the screen in a very "been there, done that" fashion. The only thing that might make me say that Covenant is worth watching is Fassbender's performance as David, especially when he's interacting with the android that is accompanying the settlers on their trip - called Walter, this other, nicer android is also played by Fassbender. There's a scene where Fassbender gives himself flute-playing lessons while speaking lines like "Watch me, I'll do the fingering." Alien: Covenant might be worth seeing for that.



HERE ALONE (2016)

A filmmaker with a decade's worth of short film and documentary credits to his name, Rod Blackhurst has made his narrative feature directorial debut with Here Alone, a post-apocalyptic horror film that provides a deeply depressing viewing experience - but you have to have patience with it in order to be on the receiving end of its depressive impact. The sedate tone and deliberate pace may tempt you to let your attention wander before the film reaches the end of its 97 minute running time, and if you check out of the story you might not end up feeling as down and rattled as I was when the end credits started to roll.

Scripted by first-time feature writer David Ebeltoft, Here Alone certainly isn't breaking any new ground. It's yet another entry in the zombie sub-genre to come along in the wake of The Walking Dead's massive success, although sticklers may not want to call it a zombie movie. Since its bloodthirsty maniacs are suffering from a viral infection, some may call them "infected people" rather than zombies. But whether they're the living dead risen from the ground or people turned into mindless killing machines by an infection, they're all zombies to me. Ebeltoft even handles his zombies in the way established by George A. Romero - as the threatening back-drop to a story of how humans are the real danger to each other in a zombie apocalypse.

There are only four actors with on-screen speaking roles in the film, which starts out as something of a one-woman show carried on the shoulders of Lucy Walters as Ann, who is struggling to survive in the post-apocalyptic wilderness by herself. The stretch of the film that focuses on Ann's lonely routine, which includes eating crackers, gathering grubs, unsuccessfully setting traps, using a bucket as a toilet, and coating herself in animal dung to mask her scent when she ventures out into the zombie-infested countryside in a search for food, goes on for so long that you might even start to wonder if she is going to be the only character in the modern day section of the story, with others appearing just in the flashbacks that show how she ended up in this situation. After all, Ann being the only person around would fit the title. That isn't the case, though, as others do eventually show up.

The flashbacks show that Ann was brought out into this wilderness, along with her infant daughter, by her husband Jason (Shane West) when news of the viral infection was just starting to break. Jason knew this area, he's the one who knew how to survive off the land. The fact that neither Jason nor the infant are around any longer made the flashbacks the most intriguing part of the film for me, as I knew there had to be something terrible and tragic coming down the line. I wanted to know what happened, but at the same time I dreaded seeing what happened. There's a baby involved here... I won't give anything away, but I will say that Blackhurst didn't hold back on showing us what went down, and it is absolutely heartbreaking.


Even after all the time she has spent out in the woods, Ann isn't a great survivalist. Viewers are likely to be groaning at her incompetence at times, or having even stronger reactions to her mistakes. It's not just her lack of ability, she has made mistakes that a person wouldn't be able to forgive themselves for. When she comes across two other people, she opens up her camp to them. Anyone familiar with zombie stories knows that these people are much more likely to ruin everything she has going on rather than increasing her chances of survival.

The pair Ann takes in are Adam David Thompson as young widower Chris and Gina Piersanti as his teenage stepdaughter Olivia. They're supposed to be leaving Ann's camp very soon, but they keep finding reasons to stick around longer and their presence does have an up side - it provides Ann with some much-needed human contact. For a while, it seems like she could have a good thing going with this two. Unfortunately, there is trouble brewing just under the surface, and I do have to hand it to Ebeltoft, the specific problem that these characters end up having with each other is not something I have seen in any other zombie story.

Here Alone is an interesting film with emotional resonance, but it also has issues that hold it back from being as effective as it could have been otherwise. The answers to the questions it brings up aren't often very satisfying or clear, to the point where I was left confused by a couple things within the film. The largest issue is its length and pace. Even though I was invested in finding out what was going to happen to the characters, I didn't feel that this was a story that required a runtime of 97 minutes, especially when it moved along so slowly that the film felt like it was nearly twice as long as it actually is.

Ann also does some very stupid things that I just can't get past, but given the fact that the character also can't get past them I can't really fault the movie for them... Not too much, anyway...

For a couple different reasons, Here Alone isn't an easy film to sit through. If you want something lively and exciting, this is not the movie you're looking for. If you want to give your attention over to some very flawed characters and slowly be told a story that may well leave you feeling devastated, this movie can certainly deliver that experience.

The Here Alone review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com



THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

The Phantom of the Opera is probably best known today for being a musical, and it makes sense that it was given the musical treatment, as the concept lends itself to that. However, the story was first presented to the world in mediums which offered no sound - author Gaston Leroux first crafted the tale in a 1910 novel, and fifteen years later Universal Pictures released a silent film adaptation.

The adaptation was not an easy one to make, with around eight uncredited writers doing work on the script at various points. The film was completely shot and screened, but when that screening didn't go over well there was a call for extensive reshoots. That's when director Rupert Julian walked away and was replaced by Edward Sedgwick, who proceeded to try to turn the gothic horror film into a romantic comedy. That version also did not go over well. Much of Sedgwick's material was left on the cutting room floor, with what remained of it being mixed into a re-edit of Julian's footage. This combination is what was eventually released.

All the hassle paid off, because The Phantom of the Opera was a major box office success. That success encouraged Universal to continue digging into gothic horror. It's because audiences turned out for this film that we would end up getting Universal Monsters movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy a few years later.


The setting is the Paris Opera House, where there are rumors of a phantom haunting the place, a cloaked figure who moves in the shadows and tries to hide his disfigured face. The rumors prove to be true when a young woman named Christine Daaé takes the stage. The Phantom takes an intense interest in her and begins manipulating situations to help out her career.

Eventually, the masked Phantom lures Christine into the hidden passageways he moves around in and takes her down to his lair beneath the opera house. He tries to get her to stay in the lair with him, free to come and go whenever she wants, as long as she obeys him as her master. When Christine shows defiance, the insane Phantom threatens to keep her prisoner.

Allowed to perform in the opera house one last time, Christine seeks help from her boyfriend Raoul. They have to figure out a way for her to escape the Phantom's clutches... But the Phantom overhears their conversation, leading to a violent climax that revolves around this twisted love triangle.


This version of The Phantom of the Opera tells the story at a pace that feels faster than most silent films, probably because of all the re-editing it went through, and I get some enjoyment out of it due to its horror bent and the straightforward simplicity of the man / woman / maniac love triangle.

Of course, the best thing about the film is Lon Chaney as the Phantom, who we come to learn is an escaped mental patient named Erik. Although other versions have given a reason for Erik's disfigured face, he was born disfigured in this one, and the hideous make-up Chaney did on himself to create Erik's skull-like face is incredible. With black paint, false teeth, and a wire pulling up the tip of his nose, Chaney crafted an unforgettable, iconic look for the Phantom. The reveal of his face is a great moment, which reportedly had audience members screaming and fainting in 1925. It's still awe-inspiring to look at nearly one hundred years later.



MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1998)

Whenever King Kong receives a remake (in 1976 and 2005) or a reboot (Kong: Skull Island), it's always a big deal. In contrast, when Tremors director Ron Underwood took the helm of a remake of Mighty Joe Young, a 1949 giant gorilla movie that was made by the same creative team as 1933's King Kong, the audience didn't seem to take much notice.

Underwood and screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner kept the basics of the Mighty Joe Young story in place, but took a very different approach to the idea of a girl and her gorilla.

In the original film, the 12 foot tall gorilla of the title was discovered in the jungles of Africa by men searching for animals to feature on stage in a Hollywood nightclub. In the remake, the 16 and a half foot tall gorilla of the title is discovered by a man, Bill Paxton as Gregg O'Hara, who has a much more altruistic reason for wanting to relocate Joe to the United States - he runs a wildlife refuge and wants to put Joe in the refuge to make sure he'll be safe from poachers.


Joe has grown up alongside a young woman named Jill Young (Charlize Theron), whose mother was a wildlife expert and brought her out to the jungle when she was very young. Jill knows the danger of poachers. Twelve years ago, Joe's mother was killed by poachers, and Jill's own mother died trying to protect the gorillas. She agrees that Joe should be moved for his own safety, and she and Joe accompany Gregg back to California.

Unfortunately, this move has the opposite effect than was intended, as it actually puts Joe in direct danger when the news of this giant gorilla being moved into the refuge catches the attention of the poacher who killed Joe and Jill's mothers, Andrei Strasser (Rade Šerbedžija). Strasser was wounded by Joe on that deadly night twelve years ago, and he wants to finish what he started.

When Strasser attempts to abduct Joe, the gorilla escapes into Los Angeles, wreaking havoc and ultimately having to save children from a fire, just like he did in the '49 film.


Mighty Joe Young '98 isn't a bad movie, it's just fine. Middling. It lacks a lot of the appeal that the 1949 movie had. Watching a gorilla in a refuge is not as interesting as the goofy nightclub acts the original Joe was part of, and even though the filmmakers tried to make this one emotionally involving, it wasn't as effective for me in that department as the original was. Joe is brought to life through the use of some impressive CGI (particularly for 1998), animatronics, and a suit designed by the legendary Rick Baker, but that can't beat the stop-motion effects Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen created in '49.

The original Mighty Joe Young was a box office disappointment, and the remake followed suit, making $50.6 million at the domestic box office on a $90 million budget. Seven years later, King Kong '05 made $218 million in the U.S. That Kong, always overshadowing Joe.

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