Wild Card Tuesday – Gentlemen Broncos


Gentlemen Broncos (2009, dir. Jard Hess)
Starring Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell, Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, Halley Feiffer, Hector Jimenez

In 2006, after he had been hired to develop the score for Nacho Libre, singer-songwriter Beck said of director Jared Hess, “No filmmaker since Fellini has had such an eye for amazing characters”. That’s a pretty strong statement to make about a filmmaker who had only released one feature film at the time. And while Nacho Libre left me wanting for the disjointed narrative of Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos has shown me exactly what Beck was seeing.
It may come as no surprise at how much I loved Broncos as it definitely hit me where I live. The film’s protagonist, Benjamin Purvis (Angarano) is a homeschooled, amateur science fiction writer who has developed a novel based on his late father. He attends a young writers conference with a group of fellow homeschooled students from his co-op and meets his idol, Ronald Chevalier (Clement) who proceeds to steal Benjamin’s story and change key details to hide the theft. Simultaneously, Benjamin sells the film rights of his novel to an incredibly amateur filmmaking duo, one of whom has romantic intentions on Ben.
The level of the theatrical grotesque in this film is so incredibly over the top. As bizarre as this world is, it feels so familiar and fleshed out. There are so many rich details and background pieces of minutiae that part of me didn’t want to leave this universe. Added to all of this are dramatized excerpts from both Benjamin and Chevalier’s versions of Yeast Lords (the name of the stolen novel). In both versions Sam Rockwell plays the protagonist and proves once again why he is one of the most talented actors working today. In Benjamin’s version he plays the hero as a gruff, Southern accented redneck and in Chevalier’s is a lisping, albino.
Aside from Rockwell, there were many great performances, in particular Hector Jimenz (also in Nacho Libre). I have no idea what sort of acting choices Jimenez made for his role as Lonnie Donaho, the auteur responsible for making over 80 films (most of them trailers he tells us) but they result in one of the strangest characters I have ever seen on the big screen. The moment I knew Lonnie would be one of my favorite characters to pop up in the film comes early on. He and Tabitha (Fieffer), Benjamin’s love interest, take a seat next to Ben on the bus heading to the writers conference. Tabitha asks Ben to give her a hand massage, and as he does Lonnie proceeds to blow in Tabitha’s ear with a sound resembling a clogged vacuum cleaner.
Jared Hess, and his wife and writing partner Jerusha, have renewed my hope in their work. They come across as a combination of the clean, crisp filmmaking of Wes Anderson and the love of the mundanely bizarre of Tim & Eric. I think Nacho Libre’s flaws came from having a third party intervene and make rewrites to make the film more “palatable” for mainstream audiences. Hess isn’t built to make mainstream cinema and the more freedom he is allowed to pursue his skewed vision of middle America the better.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part Two

SPOILERS BELOW, if you haven’t seen the Alien films and being surprised is important to you don’t read.


Alien3 (1992, dir. David Fincher)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite
When we last left Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens, she had defeated the Alien Queen and was back in cryosleep with her makeshift family (Hicks, Newt, Bishop). However, a couple months later a fire breaks out on board the space marine vessel Sulaco and the sleeping travelers are emergency ejected in a small capsule. The capsule ends up on the prison planet Fiorina 161. Sadly, all but Ripley are dead and she has an emotional collapse at this realization.
Alien3 is a great film is you like Ripley, but not necessarily if you like the xenomorph creature. The picture plays fast and loose with some of the franchise’s established rules with the creatures and moves at a much slower pace then the action-oriented Aliens. But, as I said above if you are interested in the evolution of the Ripley character then the film is quite interesting. I have to say, that after going back and re-watching this one I enjoyed it more than Aliens. It has a stronger story and I’m a big fan of when horror films take pacing seriously.
Ellen Ripley develops a love interest in the film, the prison doctor Clemens and I liked how the relationship played out atypically from most relationships in films. Ripley never takes a passive, traditionally feminine role and in fact behaves in a fairly masculine way with Clemens. Clemens doesn’t become passive either so it makes for a kind of relationship not seen much on screen. Ripley also undergoes her most severe trauma. She discovers that the fire on board the Sulaco was caused by two facehugging egg aliens (one of whom is responsible for the creature running around in the film). Ripley also learns she has been implanted with a queen. The realization that the species would have died off with the destruction of their planet in Aliens, convinces Ripley that she must make the greatest sacrifice.
If we play out the sexual/pregnancy/rape subtext of the first Alien film this makes it the pain Ripley’s situation even greater. The one violation she has fought off for decades has now happened. Sigourney Weaver plays the devastation of Ripley amazingly. The film comes to a climactic finale as Ripley races to destroy herself and Weyland-Utani rushes to Fiorina to try and claim the creature inside her for R & D purposes. In the end, Ripley makes a metaphoric fall backwards into a vat of molten lead, arms extended in an explicitly Christ-like manner, saving the universe from the xenomorph species.

Alien: Resurrection (1997, dir. Jean Pierre-Jeunet)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dany Hedaya, Brad Dourif, Dominque Pinon
Probably wondering how a fourth film starring Sigourney Weaver could be possible after the last one. Joss Whedon was brought on board to pen this truly final installment in Ripley’s story and sets the picture hundreds of years into the future. Blood samples taken in the infirmary on Fiorina 161 are gathered up by Weyland-Utani. Centuries later, the company has been absorbed as part of a bizarre government/corporate ruling body that presides over Earth. Ripley has been cloned for the sole purpose of harvesting the queen from her and in turn producing eggs and more xenos. The goal? To somehow train the creatures to become weapons in the corporate military.
Weaver plays Ripley 8, the eight and successful attempt to clone Ellen . Because of the mixing of blood, Ripley 8 also contains traces of xenomorph DNA, enabling her to have heightened sense and the trademark acidic blood. Because this character does not have the memory of the original, all the experiences and trauma are discarded. Ripley 8 is kept in a special chamber and watched over by the scientists whom are also trying to condition the xenos. This Ripley is a much less interesting character than Ellen Ripley. She fits a prototypical action hero mode, with no real emotional reaction or understanding of the consequences of her actions.
In essence, it feels like Whedon simply in enamored with the kick ass chick archetype and imposes it onto Ripley. If Buffy or River Tam is your thing, no prob, but to place that template onto the Alien franchise doesn’t feel like a natural fit. My personal preference was that having a mature, more adult figure like Ripley made for such a unique character in science fiction. The original Ellen Ripley felt like a real human being, truly scarred by her trauma with the xenomorphs yet not allowing to cripple her with fear. Her reactions felt real, she lashed out without thinking through completely, but from a purely survival perspective.
This last entry, serves as a disappointing capstone, despite having such a talented cast and crew behind it. I’m of the belief that director Jeunet decided to make a parody of all the action pictures he saw coming out of Hollywood, and if that’s true he nails it on the head. The gore is over the top to the point of being absurd and the dialogue has that clunky, smarmy style you see in any C-grade action flick. I also noticed a trend of European directors having characters in American action films cursing way too much, and has led me to believe they think this is an essential trait for blockbuster action cinema in this country.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part One

Over the holidays, while I was in Puerto Rico, I decided to download the four films in the Alien franchise after finding out Ariana had never seen them. While not all of them are quite masterpieces they do present a unique form of franchise. Typically in franchises, studios pick journeyman filmmakers to direct, guys who know how to simply shoot a film. They aren’t bad directors but they will probably never be considered visionaries. With the Alien franchise, you have Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). These are definitely directors who have signature flourishes they bring to their work. This makes each of the Alien films drastically different in their tone and look. And central to all the films is Sigourney Weaver as the first lady of action films, Ellen Ripley. In this two part essay I want to look at how Ripley was developed into one of the more believable action heroes in cinema.


Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright

In the first entry into the Alien franchise, Ellen Ripley is not necessarily identified as the main character until the last 45-30 mins of the film. Instead, the film cleverly fakes out the audience by focusing on Tom Skerritt’s captain of the mining ship the Nostromo as the hero. If you haven’t seen Alien, you are missing one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. In the wake of Star Wars, but still firmly entrenched in classic psychological sci-fi cinema, Alien takes its time to introduce its title baddie.
Character development isn’t a core component of this first film. Director Scott appears to take a more aloof, documentary style on the material, using lots of handheld camera work and realistic conversations between characters. Ellen Ripley is a warrant officer for the Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose specialty is as a pilot. She’s also second in command to Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Because of her rank in the military like structure of the corporation, we don’t see her take command until some bad things befall poor Dallas. Once she does assume command, she faces dissension from the ship’s science officer (Holm) and the contracted mining crew who is already disgruntled about their small percentage from the mission they are returning from. It’s very interesting that at such an early time in the history of the blockbuster movie, there was already a female action hero whose gender never played a role in her interactions with fellow crew members.
There is also a subtext that is commonly read into Alien that makes it fitting that a female character would take center stage. The entire process in which a person is implanted with a xenomorph (the name of the Alien species) embryo is akin to rape. A spider-like creature bursts from an egg, affixing itself to a host species’ face, then inserts a tube down into the stomach of the host where the egg is planted. The emergence of the xeno is also a dark commentary on childbirth. The larval creature bursts from the host’s chest, screaming and crying in a twisted variation on the birth-cries of an infant, and skitters away leaving the host for dead. While I’m sure the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and Ridley Scott don’t believe childbirth is evil, they are making an interesting comment on what a violent and brutal process it is. If you were to step back and observe, it is quite odd that mothers are expected to immediately love and bond with something that has literally torn them apart.
By the end of the film, Ripley has managed to escape the ship and fights of the xenomorph once more, defeating it and placing herself in cryosleep, expecting to wake up in a few weeks back at the space port.

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton
Well, Ripley’s escape ship drifted much longer than she planned, in fact she was out in the emptiness of space for 57 years. She’s found by scavengers and delivered to Weyland-Utani where she learns that her daughter (in a deleted scene from the director’s cut), who was 9 when Ripley left for the mining mission, has died at the age of 66 two years ago. This devastates Ripley, and it is apparent that she is also suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the massacre that took place on board the Nostromo. Ripley attempts to assimilate back into life on Earth, but is called back into duty when the planetoid the xenos where originally found on has been colonized and the colonists appear to have been wiped out.
Where in the first film, Ripley is goes into action only when she is pushed, this Ripley appears to have developed a much tougher skin as a result of her experiences. Her job on Earth is working a loader mechsuit (see the big robo suits from Avatar) and moving cargo around for shipment. Once she amongst the space marine platoon headed to kill the alien hordes, she is intent on proving herself just as tough as them, but with a clear head and much more intelligence than many of the grunts around her. When the unit lands and everything falls apart fairly quickly, with xenos mauling the troops, it is Ripley, not the unit commander that takes action and pulls the still living soldiers out. For the rest of the film, Ripley is the one calling the shots. She orchestrates a way of remotely calling a rescue ship from the marine vessel in the planetoid’s orbit and successfully defeats the xenos pretty much single handedly.
This film expands on Ripley’s maternal nature but introducing Newt, the child of colonists who has been severely traumatized by seeing her family devoured and used as living incubators. Ripley takes up the care of Newt without missing a beat, she knows how to speak to the child and comfort her so that she believes she is safe with Ripley no matter what. Ripley has a foil in the form of the Alien Queen, the one responsible for the those creepy, mucousy eggs that cause so much trouble. The finale of the film is two mothers fighting to death to protect their children. Something that is so visceral and ultimately feels like more organic action that most male-centric action films. There is an instinctual protective nature in mothers of all species, so much of the over the top action that occurs feels honest.
Aliens ends the same as the first: Ripley going in cryosleep, hoping that the next time she wakes this nightmare will be a memory. Too bad she has two more films to go.

Film 2010 #20 – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004, dir. Kerry Conran)

Starring Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Sir Laurence Olivier
Nostalgia is a strong element in mainstream cinema. You can look at many of the franchise films (Transformers, Batman, Harry Potter) and see that their popularity is due in part to the emotions the audience associates with the properties in how they experienced them as children. George Lucas pioneered the blockbuster nostalgia film, first with American Graffiti, but more importantly with the Star Wars series, based on the science fiction movie serials shown in theaters from the 1930s up through Lucas’s childhood in the late 40s/early 50s.
It’s the same sense of nostalgia that informs Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain film. It’s clearly modeled on the fantastical and cliffhangered films of yesteryear. Sky Captain borrows in particular from Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and DC Comics’ Blackhawks. This is pure cinematic escapism with no real subtext. Its clear the director is quite fond of The Wizard of Oz as well and that provides any sort of under the radar thematics.
The look of the film is incredibly striking, done washed out colors that are only one notch above black and white. I could see the CG being criticized for not looking realistic but I think its done in the stylization of Sin City. It also made me think of what computer generated effects would have looked like if they had existed in the 1930s for a film like this. The director used archive footage of Sir Laurence Olivier for the film’s villain, Totenkopf, and I’m completely at a loss as to why that actor was used. Olivier didn’t have a history of working pulp films, though he would have been very interesting in them.
Character development is appropriately stiff. This is the sort of film where you know there just isn’t going to be a significant character arc. The relationship between Sky Captain and his Girl Friday, Polly Perkins, is Han & Leia revisited. Everything is very combative and jealous, barely concealing how deeply the two care for each other. I actually laughed at a couple moments between the two and found their back and forth exchanges appropriate for this type of film.
At the end of the day, this is a film purely about the visuals and nods to its source material. It has much more heart than a Transformers and its apparent much love went into making it. A fun film that won’t change your life, but will appeal to imaginative kid in ya.

Film 2010 #9 – Cold Souls


Cold Souls (2009, dir. Sophie Barthes)
Starring Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson, Dian Korzun, David Strathrain

The premise is an intriguing one: Paul Giamatti playing an actor named Paul Giamatti, is having trouble tackling his role in an upcoming production of Uncle Vanya. His agent informs him of a new soul extraction service and hints that this might help him overcome his difficulties. Giamatti hems and haws over it and finally agrees and finds he’s lost his ability to act completely. Sounds like it could be good, right? Sadly, the film fails to explore its concepts fully and provides a picture that is moderately engaging.

Giamatti’s story is paralleled by that of Nina, a Russian woman who traffics souls back and forth to be used on the black market. Because the only safe way to transport a soul is to have a person carry it inside them. A side effect is that fragments of carried souls accumulate in a person and they begin to lose touch with the world. This story takes up more of the narrative and is eventually tied into Giamatti’s plot strand. It feels that the cleverness and originality of the plot concepts it lost on director Barthes.

The film owes a lot to the work of Charlie Kaufman, most notably Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Unlike those movies, there is an undeveloped nature to this script. The Giamatti angle doesn’t feel fully explored the true plot is Nina’s. In addition, Barthes creates a much darker landscape than Kaufman has ever attempted. His world’s lean more to the fanciful, while Cold Souls has merely dipped its toes. There seems to be a lot of influence from Russian literature and absurd and satiric theater, specifically that of Eugeneg Ionesco. There is not much humor in this picture, and for myself that is where I felt myself distancing from it.

I truly wanted to love this movie after seeing the trailer and seeing the interesting angle Giamatti was going to take. However, I finished it with a sense of dissatisfaction, wishing I could have seen the movie I had prepared myself for in my head. I wouldn’t encourage someone to not see this film, because there are some wonderful concepts and ideas, I just wouldn’t be able to recommend it enthusiastically.

Film 2009 #185 – The Box

The Box (2009, dir. Richard Kelly)
Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella

It was October 2001 and had become intrigued with a film trailer I came across online. The film was Donnie Darko and the picture looked to have a quirky, creepy vibe that brought up memories of David Lynch for me. The film opened at the Belcourt, I convinced some friends to go to the opening night showing and was duly impressed. I saw it a few more times in the theater and bought it on DVD and listened through the director’s commentary multiple times. It was a film that was enigmatic but seemed to have an answer to its own puzzle if you paid close enough attention. This was the first and last time Richard Kelly would impress me.

The Box is based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button”, which was adapted for the various incarnations of The Twilight Zone and has one of those plots that seems very archetypal. It’s 1976 and Norma and Arthur Lewis (Diaz and Mardsen, respectively) live in Richmond, Virgina. Norma works as an English teacher for a private school and Arthur as an engineer for NASA. Their lives change one day when a mysterious box ends up on their doorstep. The box contains a large red button set in a finished wood casing and covered with a locked glass dome. Inside the box also contains a note letting them know a gentlemen will be by to explain that evening. Cue Mr. Arlington Steward (Langella). Steward explains that if the couple presses the button they will receive a million dollars and someone in the world, whom they don’t know will die. Steward gives them a day to decide.

You don’t have to have read the short story to know where this is going and it wouldn’t make for an interesting film if our characters chose honorably. And it is at this point that the movie goes completely off the tracks, but damn its beautiful as it does! Kelly is no slouch when it comes to cinematography, he knows exactly how to frame a shot and give us gorgeous images. With this feature, he’s evoking lots of classic Kubrickian techniques (i.e. tightly framed shot with action coming in and out of them, cold imagery). There’s the Twilight Zone vibe, that’s to be expected and interesting nod to Hitchcock, particularly in the musical score.

Kelly’s weakness lies in his inability to shape a tightly written, comprehensible plot. With Darko, he could cheat a bit and the film still stands as a nice piece of cinema. He displayed a considerable lack of restraint with his follow up, Southland Tales, a film I am fairly certain even the actors couldn’t have understood. Part of me admires Kelly for attempting such large, cosmic and transcendental themes in his work, yet I can’t give him a standing ovation till he shows he has the ability to pull it off semi-successfully. The Box ends up getting bogged down in, what are becoming, Kelly’s signatures (water imagery, portals, scenes intentionally left out). From an atmospheric point of view Kelly is a genius, but as an overall film this fails from a mixture of way too out there and a sort of adolescent allegory that clunks you on the head in the finale. A wonderful experiment, but a disaster in the end.

Hypothetical Film Festival #2 – Offbeat Science Fiction

When you drop the term “science fiction” to a non-initiated non-geek there are a lot of cliched, stereotypical things that come to their mind. They think of the behemoth Star Wars franchise, the obsession of the Star Trek fan, and a myriad of other negatives things that in actuality not truly representative of sci-fi. So you want to bait your non-sci-fi friend into warming up to the genre? Here is a hypothetical film festival meant to show some of the breadth of what science fiction can be.

1) Tremors (1990, dir. Ron Underwood)
Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Reba McEntire, Michael Gross

An excellent starter film. If you haven’t seen Tremors (and why haven’t you?!) it is an incredibly irreverent, farcical pic in the vein of Roger Corman’s B-monster movies. The plot concerns two handymen (Bacon and Ward) in a rundown former mining town that is on life support. A series of mysterious deaths occur at the same time a young student seismologist discovers a serious of strange quakes happening in the region. The handymen discover that a brood of prehistoric gigantic worms are burrowing their way under the town and popping up to swallow the citizenry. What follows is a mix of slapstick comedy and bizarre sci-fi tropes that make for a fun, light flick. Beware of the follow up films in this series though. They lack the humor and budget of this film.

2) A Scanner Darkly (2006, dir. Richard Linklater)
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr, Woody Harrelson

Philip K. Dick is considered to be a master of re-defining the science fiction literary genre and creating his own branch of more philosophical literature that incorporated science fiction elements into the story structure. Sadly, the majority of attempts to adapt his stories and novels to the screen have failed to live up to their source material (Total Recall, Minority Report) or good films but definitely not what Dick intended (Blade Runner). A Scanner Darkly, an animated film, has been the first adaptation that seems to understand the intent of Dick’s work. The plot concerns Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover police agent in the near future who has been assigned to track down the production of the dangerously addictive drug, Substance D. He ends up posing as a dealer and shacking up with two brain fried addicts (Downey Jr and Harrelson) and dating fellow dealer (Ryder). The catch is that Arctor’s identity must be kept secret to everyone up to his superiors by wearing a scramble suit (a suit that obscures a person’s face and body by shifting through a mosaic of indexed images of people). Arctor’s suffers a crisis of identity as a result and the film focuses a lot of its time on his meditation on figuring out who he really is. Director Linklater is sure to keep this feeling like a not-to distant future by playing the tech side very low. A very nice transition into a branch of sci-fi Hollywood seems to ignore.

3) Happy Accidents (2001, dir. Brad Anderson)
Starring Marisa Tomei, Vincent D’Onofrio

While director Brad Anderson has become known more for his horror film work (Session 9, The Machinist), he made his start with relationship focused films. Happy Accidents works as a perfect date movie but also presents a contemporary science fiction plot that is inventive and clever and has no need for big budgets special effects. Ruby (Tomei) has had horrendous luck with men and had all but given up till she meets Sam Deed (D’Onofrio). Sam is a charismatic, quirky Midwesterner who charms Ruby right away and things move much faster than she planned. Then, Sam reveals something about himself that sends Ruby running; he claims to be from the year 2470. What follows is a clever play on the typical romantic comedy that will keep you guessing whether Sam is yet another nut-job or the real deal. A perfect example of what science fiction can be but is usually presented as.

4) Delicatessen (1991, dir. Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Starring Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus

The minds behind Amelie and The City of Lost Children present this surreal slapstick post-apocalyptic flick. At an undisclosed time in the future, the world is in ashes and one apartment building in the ruins is attempting to keep life going on as usual. A new maintenance man has shown up (Pinon), who tries to figure out how the original maintenance man vanished. This leads him to discover that the landlord (Dreyfus) is butchering passersby and selling the meat to his voracious tenants. Add in a literal underground rebellion of sewer men and you have a very strange, very funny black comedy. A movie that proves even the end of the world can be hilarious.

5) Fantastic Planet (1973, dir. Rene Laloux)

This amazing French/Czech animated film exemplifies what pre-Star Wars science fiction was about: huge, transcendental ideas and the exploration of surreal worlds. On the title planet, the gigantic blue-skinned Draag employs minute, humanoid Oms as household slaves and pets. A small clan of Om have broken away and formed a civilization in the wilderness with plans to overthrow the Draag. This film contains some amazing psychedelic imagery and is a great science fiction picture for people who are more in the Philip K. Dick vein of the genre.