Throwback Thursday: “Movie Monsters From Outer Space,” 1983

This was another book during my grade-school days that really fed my excitement about monsters — Jerry A. Young’s 1983 children’s book, “Movie Monsters From Outer Space.”  (Why does the author’s name sound so much like a pseudonym to me?)

I’m sure it’s obscure by now.  If memory serves, this was another title I ordered from those classroom bulletins put out by Scholastic Book Clubs.  (I was in the third grade, I think.)  It gave kids a brief, fun run-down of a bunch of space-based baddies — those are the Cylons from the original “Battlestar Galactica” (1978) on the cover.

It featured a bunch of older B-movies too.  I remember really wanting to see “Forbidden Planet” (1956) after seeing a picture of its monster there.

I also seem to remember reading about Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” (1979), although I suppose that I could be recalling another book.  (It would be odd if Scott’s masterpiece were described here, because it was … kinda not for kids.)

 

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An excerpt from the first sonnet of “La Vita Nuova,” by Dante Alighieri (read by Eric Robert Nolan)

This is not the complete sonnet. Neither is it necessarily the best translation of Dante’s original words.  It is merely one of the more direct and literal translations that one can find online (and it’s therefore easy to read). Fans of Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” (2000) might recognize this as being featured in the film.

 

A review of “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) is indeed a worthy sequel, even if it cannot equal Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 original film.  (And this is absolutely understandable — I opine that Scott’s dour, challenging “Blade Runner” is arguably the greatest movie of all time.)  Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t — but I sufficiently enjoyed this movie to rate it a 9 out of 10.

There is a lot going on here in terms of plot.  I won’t be specific about what I liked and what I didn’t like, because I want to avoid spoilers.  (There are definitely some surprise plot developments, and this is a relatively recent film that fans have waited no fewer than 35 years to see.)  But I’m happy to report that “Blade Runner 2049” satisfies by being a direct and logical follow-up in terms of character, plot and setting.

I do think that this would be a stronger standalone story if it had included the material that was relegated to the online short films that serve as its companions.  (You can find all three of them at Open Culture right here.)  The first one, “Black Out 2022,” is probably necessary to understanding the feature film’s story and ought to be required viewing.

The visuals were vivid and arresting, the action sequences were generally satisfying, and the acting across the board was quite good.  Harrison Ford was predictably perfect.  Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks are suitably intense and make terrific bad guys.  (I’ve always loved Leto’s work — even his criminally underappreciated, spot-on interpretation of DC Comics’ “The Joker.”)  And Carla Juri nearly steals the entire movie with her mesmerizing performance in a supporting role.

What I liked best about “Blade Runner 2049” was how surprisingly well it captured the … vibe, I guess, of the first film — its existential angst and the surprising tragic nobility of its characters.  Simply put, this film got the feeling right.  For me, this was best evidenced by a poetic subplot between the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas.  It’s great dystopian science fiction — a fusion of troubling futurism and genuine human emotion.  And the mood was greatly enhanced by an evocative score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.

There are were a couple of things that I didn’t like — they were plot points that I won’t detail here.  The pacing also felt too slow, at times.  (This is a long movie, at two hours and 44 minutes.)  And the the climactic fight scene felt just a bit claustrophobic and awkwardly executed.  (It’s a far cry from the epic feel of the original’s rainswept rooftop confrontation.)

I’d still cheerfully recommend “Blade Runner 2049” to fans of Scott’s film.  I’d caution them to sit down with it with as few expectations as possible, though, and to just enjoy this second chapter on its own merits.  It’s mostly great stuff.

 

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“Alien: Covenant” (2017) is a first-rate sci-fi horror show with lots of monstery goodness.

I am part of a happy minority where “Alien Covenant” (2017) is concerned — I keep hearing about “meh” or negative reactions from my friends, but I quite enjoyed it.  I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

No, this second installment in the “Alien” prequel trilogy doesn’t bring much new to the table.  It often seems like a collection of common tropes, and borrows a bit from previous films in the franchise — especially the first movie in 1979.  Some aspects of it — like a predictable and slightly gimmicky development late in the story — even feel like horror movie cliches.  (I am doing everything I can to avoid spoilers, so forgive how vague I’m being here.)  “Alien: Covenant” isn’t groundbreaking, and it isn’t destined to be called a “classic.”

Here’s the thing, though — all of the movie’s common tropes are exactly what make fans happy.  Think about it … if you had to name two “Alien” movies as unique or the most divergent, they might be the heady, ambitious “Prometheus” (2012) and the baroquely experimental “Alien: Resurrection” (1997).  Whatever their failings, both of those movies deserve points for creativity.  And they are among the three films that fans hated the most.  (The third here is the smartest and most underappreciated installment, 1993’s brilliant “Alien 3.”)

With “Alien: Covenant,” Ridley Scott gives fans exactly what they were clamoring for — a frightening, gory, space-based horror film with creatively designed monsters and some nasty surprises.  It very much returns to the tone of the first film.  It is even jarringly darker than “Prometheus,” which was defined partly by its moments of cautious optimism.  And, more than any other sequel, it seems directly inspired by the grotesquerie of H. R. Giger’s original, nightmarish monster designs.  I feel certain this movie would have received the late artist’s blessing.  (I could name a certain scene and an excellent surprise story development, but I won’t.)

Michael Fassbender shined in his two roles here.  (He not only reprises his role as the android, “David,” but also portrays a newer model, “Walter.”)  The rest of the acting was roundly good too.

I also found the movie nice and scary.  I, for one, don’t think Scott’s direction of action scenes here is perfect.  (They are harder to follow here, for example, than his beautiful arena melees in 2000’s “Gladiator.”) But they were still effective.

So this return to form made me pretty happy.  I didn’t want another muddled attempt at profundity like “Prometheus.”  Nor did I want a winding, bizarre, arthouse-horror tale like “Resurrection” — that movie was like a poorly written, drug-fueled comic book.  I wanted a first-rate sci-fi horror show with lots of monstery goodness, and that’s what I got.

If I had to pick a criticism of “Alien: Covenant,” I’m surprised to have to point to some less-than-stellar CGI.  This was something I noticed from early trailers for the film, and I’m surprised I haven’t heard another reviewer mention in it yet.  One scene rendered a title baddie about as well as a modern video game, albeit a good one.  Another’s depiction of an upright “neomorph” seemed … fairly bad.  (Fans of decent creature features shouldn’t despair, however — there are still some outstanding monster moments, and no small amount of accompanying gore and goo.)  Have I just become spoiled by the amazing dinosaur effects of 2015’s “Jurassic World?”  I don’t think so … I suggest that the otherwise lamentable “Alien: Resurrection,” with its combination of CGI and practical effects, had far better creature effects than this newest outing.

Of course I recommend this movie.  Maybe I should only do so with the caveat that I am (obviously) a huge fan of the series.  It has been said that I’m easy to please, too — I actually gave a glowing review to “Prometheus” shortly after its release, before wiser minds pointed out to me its sometimes egregious flaws.  (A friend of mine shared with me one of those “Everything Wrong With” videos that CinemaSins produces … it’s a hilarious webseries, but it sure will dull the shine of some of your favorite movies, lemme tell ya.)  Your mileage may vary, especially depending on how much you enjoy horror movies, as opposed to more general science fiction.

Oh!  There is a mostly non-sequitur postscript that I can’t help but add here … yet another one of my movie prognostications was flat out wrong.  It isn’t a spoiler if it’s a far-out prediction that didn’t happen, so I’ll go ahead and share it here … during one of the ads for “Alien: Covenant,” I could swear I heard a character call out the name “ASH!!!!”  (I’ve evidently started hallucinating at the start of mid-life.)  I predicted that the new and robotic Walter would turn evil, and actually become the android named Ash in the 1979 original.  (And why not?  Androids do not age, and a web-based prologue for “Alien Covenant” suggests their faces can be easily swapped out.)  I further predicted that the more human David would be pitted against him in order to save humanity somehow from alienkind.  (These things do not happen.)

I still think that’s a pretty clever idea, though, even if I only accidentally arrived at it.  It would be great if that happened somehow in the planned “Alien: Awakening.”

 

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“Life’s” a bitch.

Or at least it is to the astronauts who make an abortive attempt to escort it back to Earth.  (They realize that bringing a Martian organism home is a bad idea in this year’s surprisingly satisfying science fiction-thriller.)

I actually had more fun with this than I expected; the movie is much faster paced and scarier than the trailer made it look.  There are some real surprises and moments of genuine horror here, following a requisite plot setup that is relatively brief.  It’s a really nice monster movie that should please fans of the genre.

I actually didn’t prefer its ending, which is something for which other reviewers are praising it a lot.   I’m disinclined to say more, for fear of spoilers.  The movie’s marketing already spoiled enough.  (The ads infuriatingly show the fate of a main character.)

I will say what the movie is not, however.

One, it’s not a stealth prequel for Sony’s planned 2018 “Spider-Man” spinoff, “Venom” (though that’s such a clever idea, I wish I’d thought of it).

Two, it’s not a ripoff of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979).  Yes, it’s got the same MacGuffin, and some story parallels that I noticed early on.  But I like to think of this as a more grounded contemporary thriller, where “Alien” was a futuristic fantasy creature feature.  Besides, if we criticize every “haunted-house-in-space” movie as an “Alien” imitator, we won’t get more of them.

I’d give this an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it.

 

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Throwback Thursday: one ugly 80’s kid!!!

This picture was taken at homecoming game, I think, at Longwood High School in Suffolk County, New York, in the very early 1980’s.  This would have been the site of the “old” high school, at the end of Smith Road on Longwood Road, and not the “new” school building to which we moved in the late 80’s.

The furry fella is our school mascot, the Longwood Lion; that off-putting lily-white waif you see is me.  (God does not equally bless all children with pleasing appearances.)  I think I still remember that gray sweatshirt, and the oversized black digital watch.  (In the age before home computers, those cheap little doodads were considered a bit fancy.)

It’s a good thing I wasn’t smiling here.  Roughly half my body weight at the time resulted from my oversized teeth and gums, and that was not a pretty thing to look at.  My school picture could have redefined the term “Gummi” in a categorically horrible fashion.  I looked like somebody had cross-bred a “‘Nilla Wafer” with Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”  Or maybe crossbred John Carpenter’s “Village of the Damned” with David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”  I’m serious.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” (1982)

Young people, let me try to explain what it was like for a kid who loved movies in the early 1980’s.

There was no trivia section for the Internet Movie Database.  There was no Internet Movie Database.  There was no goddam Internet.  This meant that information about new movies came mostly from other second-, third- or fourth-graders.  And that was one imperfect grapevine.

Sometimes the information was flat out wrong.  Brad Fisher told me at the beach in the summer of 1980 that Han Solo dies in “The Empire Strikes Back.”  (Yes, “Star Wars” fanatics, I am aware that Harrison Ford wanted the character to die.  Now grow up and watch Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica.”)

Other times, the information was technically accurate, but confusingly articulated.  Such was the account of Jason Huhn, the kid across the street, of Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”  (That was a 1979 movie, but I wasn’t even allowed to watch the bowdlerized version that was on television a few years later.)  “Its head is like a tube.”  Jason told me thoughtfully.  “It has, like, two mouths.  It has a mouth, and then a mouth inside a mouth.”

Finally, the other boys’ reviews were occasionally just too spoiler-heavy.  In 1984, I had the entire rope-bridge scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” memorized in detail before I got to see the movie myself.  (Maddeningly, most of Mr. Greiner’s sixth grade class had seen it before I did, and Jason Girnius was particularly exuberant in recounting its climactic fight.)

“Halloween III: Season of the Witch” was something of a different animal.  None of the kids in the neighborhood could figure that one out.

“Michael isn’t in it!”  That was the buzz.  To a boy in the 1982, Michael Myers was an icon on par with “Friday the 13th’s” Jason.  (Leatherface was a bit before our time, and Freddy Krueger and Pinhead hadn’t arrived in theaters just yet.)  Even those of us who weren’t allowed to watch the movies had heard all about him.  It utterly confused us that that a “Halloween” movie could be made in which he was absent.

It … looked pretty scary, at least.  Its poster and tagline suggested that young trick-or-treaters would be victimized instead of teenagers old enough to babysit, so that was more frightening to a young boy.  (As an adult today, I suggest that this movie absolutely did not turn out to be a classic horror film, despite the pretty terrifying basic plot device revealed at the end.)

Today a simple Google search would inform us of John Carpenter’s plans — an anthology series in which every subsequent “Halloween” sequel was a standalone horror story with the holiday as a theme.  (I think I’d question the wisdom of that even as a kid; the studio wisely resurrected the slasher four years later.)

But the gradeschool grapevine was not so informed.  There weren’t even any tentative hypotheses among the kids on my street.  I think we just shrugged it off and returned to talking about “Star Wars.”  We just figured that adults sometimes did some really puzzling, really stupid things.  That’s a belief I still hold today.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that I occasionally engender that belief in others.

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