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Film Review: Alien

June 8, 2012 3 comments

Alien (1979; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott’s Alien basically created the sci-fi horror genre, and perhaps we ought not be terribly grateful for that. It’s a genre that has mostly spit up regurgitated versions of his claustrophobic classic in the thirty years since its release (often in the Alien franchise itself). Still, the filmic elements of this progenitor that have been widely praised are strong, indeed. The B-movie inheritances. The oppressive, smothering mood. The naturalistic ensemble (especially Sigourney Weaver and Ian Holm). The painterly depth of the shots. The sound, the sweat, the grime. The way the glacial pace lulls you into a false sense of security, and then wrenches viscerally at your fears when the movie’s pulse quickens. The exquisitely disturbing Giger designs, all part and parcel of the surfeit of suggestive psychosexual nightmare imagery that seeps from the movie’s pores. The mere presence of Harry Dean Stanton. All of this is damned good, to be certain.

Still, there are more little hiccups along the way than the film’s vast admiring hordes tend to recognize. Like a lot of late-’70s sci-fi classics, the remarkable editing work basically saves the film from the tedious, ponderous instincts of its director (many later Scott films could have benefitted from a similar treatment). The Joseph Conrad references don’t really go anywhere beyond the obvious, and seem like writerly sleight-of-hand meant to mimic literary profundity. And the iconic, freakish creature design can’t always obscure the occasional dodginess of the effects.

The more we see of the alien, the more it looks like a dude in a suit (and it looks like it just wants to give Tom Skerritt a hug when it pops up next to him in the air duct). As absurdly shocking as the chest-burster scene remains, the actual worm-larva creature that comes out of John Hurt is a mite silly. The cut from the obvious head mold of the decapitated Ash to Ian Holm’s head is also incredibly clumsy and unconvincing, a clear mistake or at least a poor attempt to cover one. The effects are mostly excellent (especially the spaceship models and the briefer shots of the alien), but those that don’t tend to add up by the end.

And, of course, Ripley goes back for the cat. There’s a killer alien on the loose, she’s trying to escape… and she goes back for the cat. Strictly bush league.

But most of the quibbles are minor, and disbelief is generally suspended in favour of absorbing discomfort and occasional, bursting fear. A classic is a classic, in the end.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Iron Giant

June 5, 2012 3 comments

The Iron Giant (1999; Directed by Brad Bird)

Brad Bird finally got his well-deserved huge success with his Pixar films, but this Cold War-era parable about technology and morality was his first great piece of feature animation work, and maybe the last great traditional 2D animated film. Adapting a Ted Hughes novel (yes, Sylvia Plath fans, that Ted Hughes) about a mountainous extraterrestrial robot who lands on earth and is befriended by a precocious and lonely boy, Bird displays his sharp visual and verbal wit and crafts a tale of its time but for all time. With fine voice performances all around, especially from Vin Diesel (yes, bad movie fans, that Vin Diesel) as the Giant and Harry Connick, Jr. as a charming junkyard Beatnik artist, Bird’s uncanny version of 1950s America encapsulates nuclear paranoia and secretive government control, and floats portentous meanings without weighing itself down.

Ultimately, The Iron Giant has much to say about America’s monomania for “national security”, especially in War on Terror era that it cannily anticipated by a few years. The parable of a sentient machine built as a weapon that learns to care for others instead of destroying them is a gentle but powerful reminder that even when faced with nebulous dangers and unapprehended threats, the good and moral shouldn’t abandon their values. Bird’s film suggests that preserving the tolerant democratic soul is a greater sign of strength than resorting to vengeful violence, and does it without a hint of self-involved didacticism. In a modern political climate in which pre-emptive war, imprisonment without trial, and even torture are apparently state actions whose righteousness and legality is up for debate, this remains a powerful and timely message. And how wonderful that it has a magnificent animated film such as this to help drive it home.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The News Media: Speaking Power’s Favoured Truth

June 3, 2012 1 comment

In a large, complex world of ample opportunity and insidious menace, the news media’s general role tends to be one of focus and simplification.  Self-produced promotional material often trumpets the press as helping to “make sense” of our often-troubling reality, and this is partly true. Media “makes sense” of events by reduction and diminishment, sorting out complexities by lopping off their branching rhizomatic potentialities and rendering them into straightforward expressions of the conventional wisdom that, above all, journalism in all of its traditional forms seeks to preserve. Leaving aside its own heroic, crusading self-constructions, the news media doesn’t so much speak truth to power as it does speak power’s favoured truths.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair contemplates how he can transition this incident into some feel-good hippie-bashing.

This predilection is often most strangely manifest in the sort of sensationalist current affairs stories that initially seem to have little to do with the capital of political, cultural, or economic power. A recent spate of such stories have burst out into the public eye this week. Commencing with the bizarre and gruesome assault in Miami in which a naked, mentally-imbalanced man was shot by police while eating the face of a homeless man followed by the macabre case of dismemberment and body part delivery in Ottawa and Montreal, the series of unsettling, unconnected events moved closer to (my) home in the last couple of days with the flooding of Toronto’s Union Station subway stop on a rainy Friday and a deadly shooting in a packed Eaton Centre mall food court on Saturday evening. While these disparate stories have little to do with each other beyond their headline-grabbing conjunction, they reveal much about the anxieties of North American capitalist society when passed through the news media filter.

There are compelling social issues underlying all of these events that are barely scratched at by press reports. The sensationalistically-dubbed “Miami cannibal” case has emerged as a woeful parable of society’s unconcern for the mentally ill and the homeless, as well as the persistence of the drug culture. The body parts incident overlaps on the subject of mental perturbation, but otherwise leading suspect Luka Rocco Magnotta seems to be a troubled, fame-seeking charlatan in a culture that mints a new such subject every few minutes. Although it’s too early to speculate on motives for the Eaton Centre shooting, the press is doing so anyway rather than asking penetrating questions about the rationality of packing such enormous crowds into the same public space. If even the liberal CBC is circling perilously around gang violence hysteria, I can’t fathom what the emerging narrative is in the fever swamps of the right-wing Sun Media.

All three of these stories have one common element underlying them, though: a steely desire for justice to be meted out on the guilty, or on those currently perceived to be guilty but not necessarily ultimately so (ask Richard Jewell about that). The knee-jerk justice streak of the public has been built up by decades of one-note press coverage of crime that often openly salivates for legal retribution in such cases; nary an eye was batted at the deadly force applied by police to “Miami cannibal” Rudy Eugene, for example, even though he was unarmed (and unable to conceal a weapon, being unclothed). That Magnotta and the Eaton Centre shooter are still at large – and the identity of the latter remains unknown to the public at least, if not to the police too – strengthens this collective wish for imminent punishment. It’s a very similar impulse to the one that led to destructive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to avenge 9/11, that animated America’s shameful racial hatreds towards the Japanese enemy in World War II, and that on a small-scale level have vivified the petty dislikes and local rivalries that have driven internecine social conflicts such as Europe’s inquisitions and wars of religion and other civil strife.

As long as Cinnabon escaped unscathed, we can all breathe a little easier.

The recent event that stands out in contrast to the reactions to these three is the Union Station flooding, but it is the one that is perhaps most in need of focused outrage. For all of the shock and tragedy and morbid curiosity invoked by the more violent happenings, they represent a permanent and unshakeable tendency towards dark acts in the human character. In these cases, our shock and outrage is of no avail. A few centuries ago, after all, brutal dismemberment was a legal, state-sanctioned form of punitive action; our ancestors would be amused by our queasiness.

The flooding, related as it was to an act of nature, may feel like it’s of the same category, but it’s also a key infrastructure failure in the heart of a city of tremendous wealth. Mayor Rob Ford’s appearance on the scene provided an interesting juxtaposition. As one of the pulsing hubs of a transit network that he has wilfully demonized and whose resources his administration has targetted for cuts was overwhelmed by stormwater, he stood there, ready to help. Ford and other like-minded politicians have “helped”, for sure. Their glib discarding of the social contract has made such failures not only possible but inevitable. The irrational contention that democratic citizens should not only contribute less tax money for the general betterment of society but also should not expect the dollars they do contribute to fund public services of a superior nature follows Ford wherever he goes. That our society boasts a news media that can muster frantic coverage of random instances of violence but gladly backs down when faced with long-term society-weakening political policies adopted by those in power is not to their credit, or to ours.