Today, the Shattered Lens wishes a happy birthday to a true Hollywood iconoclast, John Milius! In honor of Milius and his career and his legacy, today’s scene that I love comes from Milius’s 1984 film, Red Dawn.
After their small town is taken over by a combination of Cuban and Russian soldiers, a group of teenagers flee to the hills. After a few months, they sneak back into town. In this scene, two brothers (Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen) discover that their father (Harry Dean Stanton) is one of the many townspeople who have been sentenced to a reeducation camp. Their dad says a few final words to them, knowing that he’ll probably never see them again. He leaves them with one final instruction: “AVENGE ME!” Not even the propaganda film playing in the background can cover the sound of their father demanding vengeance.
And, of course, they do get their revenge, sacrificing their lives so that America might once again be free. It’s a classic John Milius moment and an appropriate scene with which to celebrate his birthday.
With the 2022 Cannes Film Festival coming to a close in the next few days, I’ve been watching some of the films that previously won the prestigious Palme d’Or. They’re an interesting group of films. Some of them have been forgotten. Some of them are still regarded as classics. Some of them definitely deserve to be seen by a wider audience. Take for the instance that winner of the 1984 Palme d’Or winner, Paris, Texas. This is a film that is well-regarded by cineastes but it definitely deserves to be seen by more people.
Though released in 1984, Paris, Texas opens with an image that will resonate for many viewers today. A dazed man stumbles through the desert while wearing a red baseball cap. Though the cap may not read “Make America Great Again,” the sight of it immediately identifies the owner as being a resident of what is often dismissively referred to as being flyover country, the long stretch of land that sits between the two coasts. Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) is lost, both figuratively and literally. After he stumbles into a bar and collapses, he’s taken to a doctor (played by German film director Bernhard Wicki) who discovers that Travis has a phone number on him. When the doctor calls the number, he speaks to Travis’s brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell). Walt has not seen Travis for three years and the viewer gets the feeling that Walt spent those years assuming that Travis was dead. Walt agrees to travel to West Texas to retrieve his brother and take him back to Los Angeles.
When Walt retrieves his brother, he’s annoyed that Travis refuses to explain where he’s been for the past three years. In fact, for the first fourth of the film, Travis doesn’t say anything. He just stares into space. Finally, when he does speak, it’s to tell Walt that he wants to go to Paris. Walt tells him that going to Paris might have to wait. Travis elaborates that he wants to go to Paris, Texas. He owns an empty parking lot in Paris, Texas.
It takes a while to learn much about Travis’s past. Like many of Wim Wenders’s films, Paris, Texas moves at its own deliberate pace and it features characters who tend to talk around their concerns instead of facing them head-on. What we do eventually learn is that Travis has a son named Hunter (Hunter Black). Travis’s wife, Jane, (played by Natassja Kinski) disappeared first. Travis disappeared afterwards, leaving Walt and his wife (Aurore Clement) to raise his son. At first, when Travis arrives in Los Angeles, he struggles to reconnect with Hunter but eventually, he does. He tries to be a father but, again, he sometimes struggles because, while Travis has a good heart, he’s also out-of-step with the world.
As for Jane, we eventually learn that she’s in Houston. She’s working in a tacky sex club, one where the customers and the strippers are separated by a one-way mirror. The customer can see and talk to the stripper but the stripper can’t see the customers. It’s all about manufactured intimacy. The customer can delude themselves into thinking that the woman is stripping just for him while the woman doesn’t have to see the man who is watching her. There are no emotions to deal with, just the illusion of a connection.
Even as Travis begins to make a life for himself in Los Angeles, he finds himself tempted to return to Houston to search for his wife….
As I said, Paris, Texas is a deliberately paced film. With a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, it feels like it’s actually three films linked together. We start with Travis and Walt traveling back to Los Angeles. The second film deals with Travis’s attempts to bond with his son. And the third and most powerful film is about what happens when Travis finally finds Jane. It all comes together to form a deceptively low-key character study of a group of lost souls, all of whom are dealing with the mistakes of the past and hoping for a better future. The film’s most memorable moment comes when Travis delivers a long and heartfelt monologue about his marriage to Jane. Beautifully written by Sam Shephard (who co-wrote the script with L.M. Kit Carson) and wonderfully acted by Harry Dean Stanton, it’s a monologue about regret, guilt, forgiveness, and ultimately being cursed to wander.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Paris, Texas is an undeniably joyful film. In a rare leading role, Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis as someone who is full of regrets but who, at the same time, retains a spark of hope and optimism. Life has beaten him down but he has yet to surrender. Once he reaches Los Angeles and Travis starts to fully come out of his fugue state, there’s a playful energy to Stanton’s performance. The scene where he dresses up as what he thinks a dad should look like is a highlight. For Travis, being a responsible adult starts with putting on a suit and walking his son home from school. Stanton’s excellent performance is matched by good work from Dean Stockwell and, especially, Natassja Kinski.
Visually, the film is all about capturing the beauty and the peculiarity of the landscape of the American southwest. Like many European directors, Wim Wenders seems to be a bit in love with the combination of rugged mountains and commercialized society that one finds while driving through the west. In the scenes in which Stanton wanders through West Texas, the landscape almost seems like it might consume him and, later, in Los Angeles and Houston, the garishness of the city threatens to do the same. Wherever he is, Travis is slightly out-of-place and the viewer can understand why Travis is compelled to keep wandering. At times, it seems like Travis will never fit in anywhere but the fact that he never gives up hope is comforting. In many ways, Travis’s own journey mirrors Stanton’s career in Hollywood. He had the talent of a leading man but the eccentric countenance of a great character actor. He may have never been quite fit in with mainstream Hollywood but he never stopped acting.
The film itself never visits Paris, Texas. Travis just talks about the fact that he owns an empty lot in the town and that he would like to see it. Still, I like to think Travis eventually reached Paris and I like to think that he did something wonderful with that lot.
Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is a detective who, on the verge of retirement, goes to one final crime scene. The victim is a child named Ginny Larsen and when Ginny’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) demands that Jerry not only promise to find the murderer but that he pledge of his immortal soul that he’ll do it, it’s a pledge that Jerry takes seriously. Jerry’s partner, Stan (Aaron Eckhart), manages to get a confession from a developmentally disabled man named Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) but Jerry doesn’t believe that the confession is authentic. When Wadenah commits suicide in his cell, the police are ready to close the case but Jerry remembers his pledge. He remains determined to find the real killer.
Even though he’s retired, the case continues to obsess Jerry. He becomes convinced that Ginny was the latest victim of a serial killer and he even buys a gas station because it’s located in the center of where most of the murders were committed. Jerry befriend a local waitress named Lori (Robin Wright) and, when Lori tells him about her abusive ex, he invites Lori and her daughter to stay with him. Lori’s daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), is around Ginny’s age and when she tells Jerry about a “wizard” who gives her toys, Jerry becomes convinced that she’s being targeted by the same man who killed Ginny. Even as Jerry and Lori fall in love, the increasingly unhinged Jerry makes plans to use Chrissy as bait to bring the killer out of hiding.
The Pledge was Sean Penn’s third film as a director. As with all of Penn’s directorial efforts, with the notable exception of Into The Wild, The Pledge is relentlessly grim. Freed, by virtue of his celebrity, from worrying about whether or not anyone would actually want to sit through a depressing two-hour film about murdered children, Penn tells a story with no definite resolution and no real hope for the future. The Pledge is a cop film without action and a mystery without a real solution and a character study of a man whose mind you don’t want to enter. It’s well-made and it will keep you guess but it’s also slow-paced and not for the easily depressed.
The cast is made up of familiar character actors, most of whom probably took their roles as a favor to Penn. Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Noonan, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Shephard, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Mickey Rourke have all got small roles and they all give good performances, even if it’s sometimes distracting to have even the smallest, most inconsequential of roles played by someone familiar. Most importantly, The Pledge actually gives Jack Nicholson a real role to play. Jerry Black is actually an interesting and complex human being and Nicholson dials back his usual shtick and instead actually makes the effort to explore what makes Jerry tick and what lays at the root of his obsession.
Though definitely not for everyone, The Pledge sticks with you and shows what Jack Nicholson, who now appears to be retired from acting, was capable of when given the right role.
When I was little, my Aunt would sometimes take my older brother and I with her into Manhattan. In a little movie theatre near 82nd Street, she’d get us a set of tickets for a film, help us get seated with snacks and then either stay for the movie or leave to perform housekeeping duties for someone nearby if she had work and we weren’t allowed to hang out on site. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York wasn’t a film she stayed for (she loved Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it was okay. I was introduced to Snake Plissken, who ended up being cooler than Han Solo to my six year old eyes. Instead of being the hero, here was a criminal being asked to a mission. It showed me that even the bad guys could be heroes, now and then (or better yet, not every hero is cookie cutter clean). The film became an instant favorite for me. As I also do with Jaws and The Fog, I try not to let a year go by without watching Escape From New York at least once. It was my first Carpenter film.
The cultural impact of Escape From New York is pretty grand, in my opinion. It had a major influence on Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear video games and also spawned a few comics with Plissken, complete with Jack Burton crossovers with Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.
Carpenter brought in most of the same crew he worked with in his previous movies. The film was the third collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill, who previously worked with him in 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s The Fog. Though Hill didn’t write this one, she was still the producer, along with Larry Franco. There’s also a bit of speculation on whether Hill performed the opening vocals describing New York or Jamie Lee Curtis handled that. Cinematographer Dean Cundey (who worked on most of Carpenter’s early films) returned to help give the movie it’s gritty look, which is helpful considering how much of it takes place either at night or in darkened rooms. Another interesting part of the production is James Cameron, who was the Director of Photography when it came to the effects and matte work. One of the best effects shots in the film has Plissken gliding over Manhattan, which was designed by Effects member John C. Wash. The shot on his plane’s dashboard of the city was made from miniature mock up with reflective tape that made it appear as if it were digital, which was pretty cool given that they weren’t on an Industrial Light and Magic budget. There’s a fantastic article on We Are The Mutantsand on theEscape From New York/LA Fan Pagethat focus on Wash’s technical contributions to the film.
For Carpenter’s career, Escape From New York marked the start of a great working relationship with Alan Howarth. Howarth, who also worked on the sound in the film, assisted Carpenter with the soundtrack. I’ve always felt this brought a new level to Carpenter’s music overall. You can easily hear the difference when Howarth was involved. Where Carpenter excelled at general synth sound, Howarth’s touch added some bass and depth. Together, they’d work on Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Prince of Darkness and They Live together. On his own, Howarth was also responsible for both Halloween 2, 4 and 5.
For the writing, Carpenter worked with Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers for him in the original Halloween. Escape From New York’s story is simple. In 1988, the crime rate for the United States rises 400 percent. As a result, someone had the notion to turn Manhattan into a prison for an entire country, setting up walls around the borough and mines in the waterways. When Airforce One crashes in the borough nearly a decade later, the recently arrested war hero / fugitive Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given a mission. Go in, rescue the President and/or the tape he’s carrying in 22 hours, and Plissken receives a pardon for all his crimes. To ensure that he follows through, he’s injected with nano-explosives that will kill him when the deadline hits. What seems like a simple mission becomes a little complicated when Snake discovers the President was captured by The Duke of New York, played by Issac Hayes (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). Given that I’ve commuted to Manhattan more times than I can count, the film holds a special place in my heart. The concept of the entire borough being a prison was mind blowing as a kid. The concept still holds up for me as an adult.
For a film about New York, there were only two days of filming actually spent on location there, according to Carpenter’s commentary. Most of that was used for the opening shot at the Statue of Liberty. The bulk of the film was made in Los Angeles, Atlanta and St. Louis. At the time, there was a major fire in St. Louis. The damage made for a great backdrop for both the crash site and the city at night. The film does take some liberties with locations, though. For example, as far as I know, we don’t have a 69th Street Bridge in Manhattan, but as a kid, it didn’t matter much. From an action standpoint, it might not feel as intense as other films. Even when compared to other films in 1981 – like Raiders of the Lost Ark (released a month earlier) – Escape From New York doesn’t have a whole lot, though I still enjoy what it does provide.
Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has 22 hours to save the President in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.
Casting seemed to come easy for the film. Hill, Castle and Carpenter reached out to some friends. Kurt Russell and Carpenter worked together on Elvis, that was easy enough. Russell’s work with Carpenter would continue on in The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A. From Halloween, Donald Pleasance was brought on to play the President, along with Charles Cyphers and Nancy Stephens as one pissed off flight attendant. From The Fog, we have Tom Atkins as Nick and Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, who happened to be married to Carpenter at the time. According to Carpenter on the film’s commentary track, the sequence for Maggie’s exit needed to be reshot and extended. The scene with her body on the ground was filmed in Carpenter’s garage and added to the film.
Ernest Borgnine’s (The Poseidon Adventure) Cabbie was a favorite character of mine. Like most cabbies, he knew the city well. He even prepared for some of its challenges with molotov cocktails. Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Christine) played Brain, the smartest individual in the room and the supplier for gas for the Duke. If you look close, you’ll also catch Assault on Precinct 13’s Frank Doubleday as Romero, which his crazy looking teeth. To round it all out, Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly) plays Hauk, who puts Snake on his mission. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Carpenter film without a George ‘Buck’ Flower cameo. Buck was kind of Carpenter’s lucky charm in the way Dick Miller was for Joe Dante’s films. Good Ol’ Buck plays an inmate who sings Hail to the Chief.
Overall, Escape From New York is a classic Carpenter film that’s worth the watch. Whether you do so while wearing an eyepatch or not, that’s on you. We all have our preferences.
Halloween is an obvious choice. It’s probably the film that John Carpenter is best-known for. The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 are two other popular choices. Libertarians and anarchists have embraced They Live as a sacred text. In The Mouth of Madness is one of the few films to capture the feel of a classic H.P. Lovecraft story. Christine is one of the best of the Stephen King adaptations. My techphobic father recently purchased a Blu-ray player just so he could watch Big Trouble In Little China whenever he felt like it.
For me, though, my favorite will always be Escape From New York.
Everything about this movie, from the premise to the execution to the darkly funny ending, is pure brilliance. For those who have been living off the grid for the last 40 years, Escape From New York takes place in what was, at the time of the film’s initial release, the near future. Due to a 400% increase in crime, Manhattan has been turned into a floating prison. A wall has been built around the island. The bridges are covered in mines. All of the residents are prisoners who have been sentenced to a life term and the Chock Full O’Nuts is now literally full of nuts.
There’s a new resident of New York City. He’s the President (Donald Pleasence!) and he was supposed to soon deliver a classified cassette tape to the Soviets. Instead, with the world on the verge of war, Air Force One has crashed in Manhattan and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes!!) is holding him hostage. Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef!!!) recruits notorious criminal Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell!!!!) to sneak into the prison and retrieve the cassette and save the President, by any means necessary. If Snake succeeds, he’ll get a pardon. If Snake fails, he’ll die due to the microexplosives that have been injected into his system.
How unbelievably cool is Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin? Before fanfic was even known by that name, people were writing stories about Snake Plisskin’s past and how he lost his eye. Delivering his lines in a Clint Eastwood-style rasp, Kurt Russell gives one of the best action hero performances of all time. (Snake was the role that transformed Russell from being a clean-cut former Disney child star to being a cult film icon.) Everything that Snake says is quotable and, even with tiny explosives circulating through his blood, Snake never loses his cool. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Snake cares whether he lives or dies and that’s what makes Snake such a strong hero. He’s wiling to take the risks that no one else would. If he saves the President and the world, cool. If he doesn’t, neither was probably worth saving anyways. At the end of the film, Snake reveals that there are things that he does care about. If you don’t appreciate the people who sacrificed their lives for you, don’t expect Snake to do you any favors.
Snake gets some help from a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces, all of whom have their own reasons for trying to save the President from the Duke. Harry Dean Stanton is Brain while Adrienne Barbeau is Maggie. Brain is the smartest man in Manhattan and Maggie’s good with a gun and it’s too bad that we never got a prequel about how they met. My favorite of Escape from New York‘s supporting cast is Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, who is the perfect New York taxi driver and whose taste in music plays off in an unexpectedly satisfying way.
Escape From New York is John Carpenter at his best, an exciting race against time full of memorable characters and thrilling action. Whenever I go to New York and I cross over a bridge into Manhattan, I think about Snake, Cabbie, and the gang driving through a minefield. Everyone who meets Snake says “I thought you were dead,” but we know better. Snake Plisskin will never die and neither will my love for Escape From New York.
As the day draws to a close, I’m going to recommend one final film.
It’s not, by any means, a perfect film. In fact, it’s pretty damn imperfect. It’s a film that occasionally tries too hard to be profound. It’s based on a play and it never quite escapes its theatrical origins. What was undoubtedly exciting on the stage, drags a bit on the screen. It’s a fairly obscure film. I just happened to catch it on This TV a month ago and the main reason that I watched it was because of the cast.
But no matter! I still think you should watch this film if you get a chance.
The name of that film is Fool For Love.
First released in 1985 and based on a play by Sam Shepard, Fool For Love takes place over the course of one long night at a motel in the Southwest. Staying at the motel is May (Kim Basinger), who is hoping to escape from her past. Not eager to allow her to escape is her former lover, Eddie (Sam Shepard). An aging cowboy, Eddie shows up at the motel and tries to convince May to return with him to his ranch. As they argue, clues are dropped to the terrible secret that haunts their past. Martin (Randy Quaid), a buffoonish but well-meaning “gentleman caller,” shows up to take May on a date and finds himself sucked into the drama between her and Eddie.
Meanwhile, on the edge of every scene, there’s the Old Man (Harry Dean Stanton). The Old Man watches Eddie and May and offers up his own frequently sarcastic commentary. It becomes obvious that he not only knows about the secret in their past but that he’s determined that they not get together. Is the Old Man really there or is he just a figment of everyone’s imagination or is he something else all together?
As I said earlier, the film never quite escapes its theatrical origins. As well, while Shepard and Kim Basinger both give authentic and charismatic performance, they don’t quite have the right romantic chemistry to really convince us that Eddie would chase May all the way to that isolated motel. It’s hard not to feel that if May had been played by Shepard’s then-partner Jessica Lange or his Right Stuff co-star, Barbara Hershey, the film would have worked better.
And yet, even if it never comes together as a whole, Fool For Love is a film that should be seen just for its display of individual talent. Of the film’s five main creative forces, only Kim Basinger is still with us. Director Robert Altman died in 2006 while Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton both passed away in 2017. While Randy Quaid is still alive, it’s doubtful he’ll ever again get the type of roles that earlier established him as one of America’s best character actors. Whenever I read another snarky article about Quaid hiding out in Vermont and ranting about the “star whackers,” I can’t help but sadly think about the perfect performances that Quaid used to regularly give in imperfect films like this one.
So, definitely track down Fool For Love. Watch it and pay a little tribute to all of the wonderful talent that we’ve lost over the last 10 or so years. Watch it for Robert Altman’s ability to turn kitsch into art. Watch it for the rugged individualism of Sam Shepard and the once-empathetic eccentricity of Randy Quaid. Watch it for Harry Dean Stanton, the legendary actor who, more than any other performer, seemed to epitomize the southwest and Americana.
Watch it and spare a little thought for all of them.
Today is 4.26, also known as “Alien Day”, and named after the planet in James Cameron’s Aliens (LV-426 / Acheron). It’s a celebration of the entire Alien Franchise, but I’m only focused on the first film as I finally saw it in the theatre in 2017.
This isn’t so much a review as it’s just my history with Ridley Scott’s Alien. You can find actual reviews all over the internet, and I know very few people who didn’t enjoy the movie. This piece assumes you’ve seen the film and are familiar with it. There are also spoilers within, though with a nearly 40 year old film, I’m not sure if it can be classified as such.
When I was little, my older brother and I shared a room in my grandmother’s house. Below our bunk beds was a open space that contained a set of boxes and each box contained a collection of our toys – board games, knick knacks, things like that. If you needed something, you went under the bed to fetch it. Only thing is, I always reached into those boxes with my eyes closed.
I have a vague memory of when my older brother received 3 toys that affected the way I looked at things. The first was a board game for the movie Alien. On it, you had a map of the Nostromo, about 3 Astronaut pieces and one for the Alien. I can’t recall the exact nature of how it was played, but I do remember it having to do with finding a way to reach the Narcissus – the escape ship – before the Alien reached your character. Each player also had their own Alien they could use to hunt the other characters before they could escape.
The Alien Board Game. Fox marketed toys for Alien (an R rated film), possibly fearing the mistake they made with Star Wars.
The second was a movie viewer. I had to do some hunting around the net to find it, and thanks to The Toy Box, I was able to locate one. These viewers (made by Fisher Price and by Kenner) were really popular, especially after the Star Wars boom. You loaded it with a tape and it would play out a scene. For the Alien tape my brother had, it would play out the egg opening face hugger jump sequence. I rewound that too many times, and perhaps it’s the reason I’m afraid of spiders. I don’t really know for sure. The tape used below goes through most of the film’s plot, so if you haven’t watched the film by now, consider yourself spoiled.
The last toy was the reason I never went into the toy boxes. My brother owned an 18 Inch tall Alien figure, complete with a glow in the dark headpiece and a functional second set of teeth. It was one of the scariest things I’d seen as a kid.
All of this was thanks in part to Star Wars. With the mistake Fox made in giving the merchandising rights for Star Wars to Lucas and Lucasfilm, Ltd., they missed out a major chunk of revenue. So when Alien was set to launch 2 years later, they greenlit an entire toy line for the film, even though the movie was rated “R” and the toys demographic couldn’t really see the movie without parental supervision. For the time, that was a pretty amazing thing.
Back in the early 1980s, my father invited my older brother and I to his place to see Alien. I was about six or seven years old at the time, with my brother a few years older. My parents worked nights, so we pretty much lived with my grandmother. He was always into movies and he acquired a RCA Videodisc Player, along with that film and First Blood. Although I was sick, I still went and watched it. I vomited twice during the playthrough, but it was so worth it.
I’d come to find out years later from my Mom that my Dad really didn’t need to invite us. He was just too scared of the movie to watch it alone. According to family legend, Alien was a date movie for my parents, and halfway into the film, my Dad (along with most guys, I’ve heard), was using my Mom as a shield. Mind you, this was a guy who kept multiple firearms in the house and knew how to use them.
Alien was the brainchild of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Having worked on Dark Star for John Carpenter, O’Bannon wanted to create another space film, but with a more serious tone. They came up with the story, inspired by 1958’s B-movie classic It! The Terror From Outer Space and decided to roll with it. The feel for their story would be more like a set of space truckers hauling ore and picking up a stowaway space possum in their cargo.
And that’s Alien in a nutshell. A crew of seven astronauts heading towards Earth in their mining vessel are awakened from hyper sleep when their spaceship – The Nostromo – picks up a distress signal from a nearby planetoid. They are given orders to investigate the signal, but when one of them is incapacitated by an alien life form, it brings trouble to the rest of the crew once they all return to the ship. Can they survive?
The casting for Alien is damn near flawless. There isn’t a single person that feels out of place. The characterization for everyone is straightforward, from the wisecracking pair of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto to the very systematic Ian Holm as the Nostromo’s Science Division expert, it doesn’t take long for one to get to know them or at least wonder if they’ll make it through the story unscathed. Whether it’s Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert, who is nervous and jittery mid way through the film (and with good reason) or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley who sees the potential threat before it gets out of hand, everyone here plays their part well.
Ridley Scott was a young director brought on board to create the film. Now, normally, this is where the movie would be made and that really would be that. Scott’s visit to an art gallery in Paris would change the make up of the movie, according to the behind the scenes documentary. What set Alien aside from other space/horror fanfare were the influences of two major artists at the time, Jean Giraud and H.R. Giger.
Concept Art by Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius.
Having seen his work in France, Ridley Scott felt that Giger had to be brought on board. Giger agreed to use some of his designs for the film and actually helped create the entire Space Jockey set. For the late 1970s, Giger’s look – elongated bones with sexual undertones – had to be a shock to audiences. Giraud, known to many fans as Moebius, was one of the greatest illustrators to have lived. Giraud was previously brought on to work on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune, but after that fell through, he ended up working with Scott for a bit, mainly coming up with the designs for the suits in the Nostromo. Together, both their designs would be used to bring something entirely new to audiences at the time. Also on hand was Carlo Rambaldi (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Dune), who helped design the Alien’s mouth and motor features. In the effects department, Dennis Ayling, Nick Allder, and even Batman’s Anton Furst had a hand in setting the atmosphere for the Nostromo and LV-426. The result is a sense of claustrophobia. The Nostromo’s hallways aren’t the immaculate ones you’d find on board the Enterprise or the roomy ones on the Millennium Falcon. They’re tight, dimly lit with an obvious function over form factor to them. It’s a space rig.
With older monster films, the creature usually is just one form. Giger’s Alien had three distinct forms used, which has always made me curious for the initial audience reactions. The first encounter is with a the Facehugger, an arachnid like creature with a tail that restricts the breathing of its potential victim. Add to this the notion that it uses molecular acid for blood. How do you even fight such a thing? Imagine thinking this is the “big bad” you’re going to see throughout the movie. Scott was particular in having the advertising reference as little as it could about the Alien itself (though the toy line kind of ruined that).
Just when you’re comfortable with the possiblity of facehuggers crawling around, the movie switches gears and introduces us to the Chestburster, a phallic snake of a creature (thanks again to Giger). . The scene was fantastic. Although the cast was told what was supposed to happen with Kane (John Hurt), they weren’t completely filled in on how it was supposed to occur. It was a two part process. The first involved trying to hold down Kane, and the second was setup with John Hurt in the table to have the “push through”. So, when Kane lets out that one big scream, everyone’s reactions are real. You can see that both Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Dallas (Tom Skerritt) are completely stunned. Veronica Cartwright (and her character Lambert) caught the worst of all this and also had the best reaction. When the Chestburster appears, the effects blood pumps caught Cartwright full on and it was all kept on film. I’m told that the scene in its initial run had people curling in their seats, standing to move to the back of the theatre (for some distance) or walking out altogether. What I wouldn’t give for a Time Travelling DeLorean and an Opening Night movie ticket to that.
So now, there’s a snake running loose on the ship. The film spares very little time before our newborn becomes an adult. Mostly sleek and skeletal, the adult Alien is the stuff of nightmares, but thanks to Scott, and Cinematographer Derek Vanlint, we don’t see much of the Alien until the last act of the movie. Like the Batman, we only see it pounce, and that’s a testament both to the lighting used and the editing of shots. Scott’s close-ups on the Alien’s mouth and forehead doesn’t give anyone enough time to fully make out what it is entirely. Credit also goes to Bolaji Badejo, who portrayed the Alien. At 6’10”, Badejo was perfect for the creature sense of stature and movement, particularly with Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett having to stare up at him in shock.
The production wasn’t without an issue here or there. Giraud’s suits – which had a samurai feel to them – had problems with the ventilation, so some of the actors nearly experienced exhaustion while working in them. This was later remedied, of course.
Alien remains one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores, though it’s also a simple one. The music isn’t so much horrific as it just classical. The music in Alien isn’t really used to imply any kind of horror (save for perhaps one sequence), but perhaps that’s a good thing. The music lets the movie do the talking instead of throwing zingers. There’s very little I can say about the score outside of that.
Alien would go on to spawn seven extra films, though personally, only James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) are the two worth seeing. Alien 3 (1992) is beautiful, thanks to David Fincher and Cinematographer Alex Thomson, but also kind of damaged the timeline.
So, turn out the lights, settle in with the food of your choice and enjoy Alien Day.
The Space Jockey. Much of Giger’s designs looked like bone.
* – A thank you goes out to Kevin Carr of Fat Guys At the Movies. He once featured It! The Terror From Outer Space years ago during the weekend Live Tweets he used to host. It was a treat to watch.
(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day. These films could be nominees or they could be winners. They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee! We’ll see how things play out. Today, I take a look at the 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)
How was the west won?
According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life. Some of them were mountain men. Some of them worked for the railroads. Some of them rode in wagons. Some of them gambled. Some of them sang songs. Some shot guns. Some died in the Civil War. The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face. How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s. It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action. Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama. Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience. The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west. The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.
The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatarwas a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue. I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story. How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie. There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story. There’s the Civil War story. There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story. None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.
Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors. Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.
And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won. Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm. The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen. Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television. “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment. “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!? THINK AGAIN!”
Then there’s the huge cast. As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch. Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.
For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey! That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”
There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!
Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler? And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter! And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!
See that stern-faced settler over there? It’s Karl Malden!
What’s that? The Civil War’s broken out? Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day. And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy! And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute? Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?
When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton. And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera. When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”
How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching. It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations. It lost best picture to Tom Jones.
(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)
The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance! Today, I take a look at 2006’s Alpha Dog, which premiered, out of competition, at Sundance.
Sometimes, I suspect that I may be the only person who actually likes this movie.
Alpha Dog is a film about a group of stupid people who end up doing a terrible thing. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) is a 20 year-old living in Los Angeles. His father, Sonny (Bruce Willis) and his godfather, Cosmo (Harry Dean Stanton), are both mob-connected and keep Johnny supplied with the drugs that Johnny then sells to his friends. It’s a pretty good deal for Johnny. He’s got a nice house and a group of friends who are willing to literally do anything for him. Johnny, after all, is the one who has the money.
When Johnny’s former best friend, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), fails to pay a drug debt, things quickly escalate. When Johnny refuses to accept even a partial payment, Jake responds by breaking into Johnny’s house and vandalizing the place. (Just what exactly Jake does, I’m not going to go into because it’s nasty. Seriously, burn that house down…) Johnny decides that the best way to force Jake to pay up is to kidnap Jake’s younger brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin, who is heartbreakingly good in this film).
It quickly turns out that Zack doesn’t mind being kidnapped. Everyone tells Zack not to worry about anything and that he’ll be set free as soon as Jake pays his debt. Zack decides to just enjoy his weekend. Since Johnny is better at ordering people to commit crimes than committing them himself, he tells his friend, Frankie (Justin Timberlake), to keep an eye on Zack.
And so it goes from there. While Johnny leaves town, Frankie introduces Zack to all of his friends. Everyone laughs about how Zack is “stolen boy.” Zack’s going to parties and having a good time. However, Johnny returns and reveals that he’s been doing some thinking, as well as talking to his lawyer. Regardless of whether Zack’s enjoying himself, both Johnny and Frankie could go to prison for kidnapping him. Frankie argues that Zack won’t tell anyone about what happened. Maybe they could just pay him off. Johnny thinks it might be easier to just have him killed. Frankie’s not a murderer but what about Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy)? Elvis is a loser who desperately wants to be a part of Johnny’s crew and he owes Johnny almost as much money as Jake does. How far would Elvis be willing to go?
(While this plays out, the film keeps a running tally of everyone who witnesses Zack not only being kidnapped but also held hostage. In the end, there were at least 32 witnesses but none of them said a word.)
Alpha Dog is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood and the murder of 15 year-old Nicholas Markowitz. Hollywood spent five years as a fugitive from justice, hiding out in Brazil and reportedly being protected by his wealthy family. He was arrested shortly before the Sundance premiere of Alpha Dog. Since it was filmed before Hollywood’s arrest and subsequent conviction, Alpha Dog changed his name to Johnny Truelove. Johnny Truelove is a good name but it’s nowhere near as memorable as Jesse James Hollywood.
Alpha Dog sticks close to the facts of the case, providing a disturbing portrait of a group of aimless wannabe gangsters who, insulated by money and privilege, ended up getting in over their heads and committing a terrible crime. Emile Hirsch gives one of his best performances as the sociopathic Johnny Truelove while Ben Foster is both frightening and, at times, sympathetic as Jake. Justin Timberlake is compelling as he wrestles with his conscience while Shawn Hatosy is properly loathsome as the type of idiot that everyone knows but wish they didn’t. The dearly missed Anton Yelchin is heartbreaking and poignant as Zack. And finally, there’s Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton doesn’t say a lot in this movie. Often times, he’s just hovering in the background. The moment when he reveals his true self is one of the best in the movie.
As I said, I sometimes feel as if I’m the only person who likes this movie. It got mixed reviews when it was released and, in the years since, it rarely seems to ever get mentioned in a positive context. Personally, I think it’s a well-done portrait of privilege, stupidity, and the lengths to which people will go to avoid taking a stand. In the end, no one escapes punishment but it’s the rich guy who, at the very least, gets to spend at least a few years enjoying his freedom in Brazil.
Three cowboys — Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson), and Otis (Tom Filer) — are riding their horses across the old west when they come upon a cabin that is inhabited by one-eyed Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton) and his friends. Though they suspect that Dick may be an outlaw, the cowboys accept his offer to stay the night. The next morning, they wake up to discover that they are surrounded by a posse. Mistaken for members of Dick’s gang, Vern and Wes go on the run. Eventually, they find themselves hiding out at the home of Evan (George Mitchell), Catherine (Katherine Squire), and their daughter, Abigail (Millie Perkins). While Wes and Vern wait for their chance to escape, the posse grows closer and closer.
A minimalistic western with a fatalistic outlook, Ride In The Whirlwind is today best known for being a pre-Easy Rider credit for Jack Nicholson. Nicholson not only co-produced the film but he also wrote the script. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Nicholson not only gets the best lines but that he also comes close to getting the girl. Of all the roles that Nicholson played before his star-making turn in Easy Rider, Wes probably comes the closest to being what would be considered to be a typical Jack Nicholson role. Wes is sarcastic, quick with a quip, and alienated by mainstream society (represented here by the relentless posse). Nicholson gives a confident performance and it is interesting to see him co-starring with some of the same actors, like Harry Dean Stanton, who would continue to be associated with him once he became a star. Though the film may be dominated by Nicholson, Stanton also makes a strong impression and comes close to stealing the whole movie.
(Also of note is an early appearance by Rupert Crosse. Years later, Crosse was set to co-star with Nicholson in The Last Detail but his early death led to Otis Young being cast in the role.)
With its dark outlook and anti-establishment theme, Ride In The Whirlwind was before its time and it struggled at the American box office. (According to Monte Hellman, it was very popular in France.) It would be another three years before American culture would catch up with Nicholson’s anti-establishment persona and Easy Rider would make him a star.