Forty years after his superb 1977 début with The Duelists, Ridley Scott has proven, more often than not, to be an engaging filmmaker. At nearly 80 years of age, he remains a provocative dinosaur from the school of ambitious science fiction, a genre he excels in, but has only worked in sporadically. Along with the late Stanley Kubrick, Scott does it better than anyone—arguably, even better than Kubrick. It’s often forgotten today, but upon its première, Alien (1979) was criticized by some as a jazzed-up variation of the gorilla in a haunted house. Those trappings were deceptive. If Alien were only that, it would hardly have come to be considered a science fiction/horror yardstick. The same could be said for 1982’s Blade Runner, which was initially a critical and box office flop, but became a cult phenomenon. When Scott belatedly returned to the Alien franchise, he produced the sublime and startling Prometheus. It proved to have too many unresolved mysteries, was too aesthetic, too peculiar, too cerebral, and too resourceful to be the fix that the formula craving audience desired. With Alien: Covenant, he delivers a hybrid: a sequel of sorts to Prometheus, and a vague segue into Alien. It’s a summer blockbuster that, coming from Scott, is something more. As can already be seen by its modest American opening and outraged reactions spewed by those who prefer their sci-fi unchallenging, Covenant is not going to please face-hugger followers. And unless it does well overseas, the likelihood of another Scott-helmed Alien seems a stretch. Although that is almost predictable, it’s also unfortunate.
Paradoxically, Covenant contains some of Scott’s most assured filmmaking along with his roughest. Beautifully filmed, filled to the brim with surprises, drawn out, disheveled in sections, and sporting what, on the surface, appear to be derivative fan-appeasing choices, it, along with the 1979 original and Prometheus, make up Scott’s standout Alien trilogy. These are far superior to any of the sequels made by others, including the action-oriented Alien-Rambo crowd-pleaser from James Cameron. Although Aliens is a memorably punchy film with etched-in-stone performances by Sigourney Weaver, the shiny beast (courtesy H.R. Geiger), and Bill Paxton, Cameron unwittingly gifted Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)→
PLOT: A struggling young musician lands a gig as keyboardist in an experimental band led by an eccentric prodigy who never takes off his oversized papier-mâché head.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Here at 366 Weird Movies, we immerse ourselves so deeply in the bizarre end of the cinema pool that we sometimes lose track of what the mainstream thinks of as “weird.” When I’m watching a movie in a theater, I usually keep an eye out for walkouts as a good gauge of when a film is too strange for the comfort of average cinemagoers. There were no walkouts in Frank; actually, the audience laughed frequently, at exactly the places the writers intended them to. As much as I enjoyed Frank, as I was leaving the theater I was wondering if it could make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies based merely on Michael Fassbender’s performance inside a giant fake head when a wide-eyed stranger accosted me with the observation, “that was one frickin’ strange movie.” (Yes, he actually said “frickin'”). That unsolicited endorsement of the film’s oddness, from a man who was obviously open-minded enough give a movie about a musician with a giant fake head a chance in the first place, is enough for me to give Frank consideration for the List.
COMMENTS: Steeped in self-aware indie music culture (Austin’s hipster festival South by Southwest is even a major plot point), the charming and playful Frank is in danger of becoming too twee for its own good. The early crisis that affords protagonist Jon Burroughs his opening to join macrocephalic Frank’s band “Soronprfbs” as an emergency keyboard player is one of the quirkiest and least depressing suicide attempts ever filmed, leaving us to wonder whether there will be this will be one of those consequence-free comedies where nothing is at stake and it’s impossible for any of the characters to be seriously hurt. And while Frank does play that way through its spry opening reels, it eventually shades its sunshine with clouds, as Frank’s madness progresses from cute to disabling.
Michael Fassbender, in what is almost a pure voice acting performance, conveys the fascination of the guileless Frank, a mad genius who wears his giant plaster head like a cocoon of childlike creativity. Frank is joined in his musical pursuits, which involve rigorous exercise regimens and spontaneous odes to tufts in the carpet, by engineer/manager Don, a friendly recovering lunatic Frank met in a mental hospital, and scary Clara, a sociopathic theraminist with an intense loyalty to Frank and an equally intense loathing for all forms of mediocrity. A French-speaking guitarist and a nearly silent percussionist round out the band, until they are joined by Jon, a struggling songwriter and competent keyboard player. Jon is encouraged by affable Frank and by Don, who sees him as an equally untalented kindred spirit, while the rest of the band considers him an interloper. Jon will attempt to grow as an artist under Frank’s tutelage, but can he find the divine spark of madness, or will his attempts to steer the band in a more accessible direction tear them apart?
Frank seems to cultivate an anti-success ethic, embracing the affectation that the only good bands are undiscovered bands. Soronprfbs, of course, is the ultimate uncommercial act: Frank’s ditties range from Syd Barret-esque doodles to full-out psychedelic noise freakouts, and the group never manages to get more than one song into a set before someone throws a tantrum or suffers a breakdown on stage. Ironically, however, as a movie Frank is actually pretty accessible, while still flying its freak flag proudly. It succeeds in finding an audience by being funny, from Jon’s fumbling attempts at basing songs at pedestrians he sees passing before him (“lady with a baby, that’s how it works”) to the description of the sexual peccadillo that got Don institutionalized to Clara’s terrifying moment of horniness. We can’t all be genius weirdo artists encased in fibergalss heads, but we can all laugh at Frank.
Frank is sort-of-based-on-a-true story. British musician/comedian Chris Sievey portrayed the hollow-headed character Frank Sidebottom from 1984 until his death in 2010. The script is a fictionalized version of writer Jon (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) Ronson’s memoir about his time spent as a keyboardist in Sidebottom’s experimental retinue.
For years, Trekkies have perpetrated the “odd-numbered curse” rumor that befell the original crew’s movies. According to this theory somehow, someway the odd numbered movies are mysteriously inferior to the even numbered entries. While there is a certain truth in that, it is not because of some silly curse, nor is it a mystery. Movies do not just magically “make themselves,” and the actors do not make it up as they go along. The common denominator in the even numbered Star Trek entries is Nicholas Meyer, who wrote and directed Star Trek II (1982) and Star Trek VI (1991) and co-wrote the script for Star Trek IV (1986). The strengths of Star Trek IV lie in the writing, particularly that which is clearly from the stylistic hand of Meyer. The film’s weaknesses lie in Leonard Nimoy’s pedestrian directing.
When the third X-Men movie, The Last Stand (2006) was released, fans (and some critics) were shocked that it fell far short of the first two entries. Since Bryan Singer directed and co-wrote both X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003), and was not at all associated with The Last Stand, that third film’s lesser quality should not have been a surprise. Regardless, Singer has returned after an eleven year absence to direct and co-write Days of Future Past. With him, the franchise is vital entertainment again. Although not without flaws, X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) is as much imaginative dumb fun as Singer’s previous efforts. Its biggest misstep is that it is not a stand alone movie. It expects the audience to have seen all the previous X-Men movies, and after The Last Stand it should be counted as almost a miracle that any future movies were even made about mutant super-people. (Except, of course, we are talking about the 21st century American market; the same market that actually made a hit of live action Scooby Doo movies, the Transformers franchise, and the Fast and Furious franchise). It is probably helpful to have along a translator who speaks Marvel Comics if you are unfamiliar with all the characters’ histories—and there a lot of characters, too damned many for Singer to balance with the same level of deftness that Joss Whedon is adept at.
Like many Trek stories, this X-Men opus tackles a time travel plot, albeit an overly complicated one. Thankfully, it turns playful. There are plenty of allegories bandied about and historical parallels abound (think the Vietnam War and a Terminator-like apocalypse). An older Professor X (Trek veteran Patrick Stewart) and Magneto ( Ian McKellen) meet their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender), shades of Picard-meets-Kirk or Spock-meets-Spock-Prime. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has to go back to 1973, which means waking up to the music of Roberta Flack and the discovery that Richard Nixon (Mark Comancho) was not only deep in Watergate, but also aiding and abetting Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage) in a robot plot (it always helps to have robots). References to the Kennedy assassination and the magic bullet are thrown in for good measure (which diverts us back to another unused Trek plot).
Singer occasionally gets waterlogged, probably from trying to appease fanboy expectations. Additionally, his return to pulp is excessively long in its last quarter. However, it is capped off with a winning finale, which feels like a teenage interpretation of “Twilight Of The Gods” (minus Wagner himself, of course). Singer keeps the film flowing through pop references galore, which helps levitate all that on-sleeve, existential mutant angst. Even the much-missed Jim Croce provides good tonic, via his legendary “Time In A Bottle,” as does John Ottman’s assured score. Once past the confusing opening, X-Men: Days Of Future Past shifts gear into ambitious, melodramatic fun, and has a few surprises up its sleeve, at least to those of us who forgot our Marvel concordance. Now, if the producers are smart, they’ll keep Singer employed in this franchise (providing he can keep out of jail).
Numerous artists, from Ludwig van Beethoven to modernist composer Luigi Nono and Trappist monk Thomas Merton have found useful symbology in the legend of the great existential seeker Prometheus. Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus (2012) filters the legend through the director’s pop science fiction sensibilities. Prometheus is the most ambitious film of the Alien franchise, so it is not surprising that fans are not altogether responding to it.
Alien (1979) was, of course, Scott’s breakthrough. It is a film that holds up far better than many of the period. Alien borrowed from other films, including Mario Bava‘s Planet of the Vampires (1965) and numerous old dark house movies. A highly stylized film, its intensity is most nervously heightened early on. The infamous indigestion scene with John Hurt and the building tensions between Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver (climaxing with the two actors locked in a mortal combat involving a girlie magazine) create searing impressions. Weaver’s performance in the original film is a pitch-perfect example of femininity locked into Herculean survival mode when coming fact to face with H.R. Giger’s impeccably designed monster of the house. Still, following the Jacques Tourneur rule, the most frightening of the man-meets-monster scenes involves Tom Skerrit, in claustrophobic setting, pitted against an unseen adversary.
1986’s Aliens (dir. James Cameron) was a rousing take on the Ritz Brothers (as redneck outer space Marines) versus a slew of aliens with a returning Weaver (complete with Joan Crawford shoulder pads and ray gun) leading the charge. While Cameron’s Aliens appeased twelve year-old boys fantasies, it was also filled to the rim with risible dialogue. Weaver, surprisingly, received an Academy Award nomination for her second turn as Ripley, even though her performance was nowhere as nuanced as it was under Scott’s direction. Her nomination, although deserving, is even more surprising when viewed today because she is saddled with eye-rolling, tough guy one-liners and a hackneyed scenario in the director’s cut (wherein we find that, during her hibernation, her only daughter had grown old and died. This, of course, gives Continue reading PROMETHEUS (2012)→
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