Alien

Released: 1979

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Movie Trailer

Cast:

Sigourney Weaver: Ripley

Tom Skerritt: Captain Dallas

Ian Holm: Ash

Harry Dean Stanton: Brett

John Hurt: Kane

Yaphet Kotto: Parker

Veronica Cartwright: Lambert

In 1977, movie production was turned on its head by a little movie called Star Wars.  Directed by George Lucas, Star Wars changed the way we look at movies in terms of design, camera work, special effects, and story-telling.  Star Wars inspired a generation of film-makers to take risks and create something special.  Star Wars, however, was also the inspiration for many knock-offs, such as Saturn 3, The Black Hole, and Battle Beyond the Stars.  Star Wars was often imitated but never duplicated.  One up-and-coming director, Ridley Scott, decided to take the space-faring genre into a different direction.  Whereas George Lucas wanted to fill his movies with a sense of adventure and wonder, Scott chose to infuse his science fiction feature with terror.  In 1979, Ridley Scott released Alien, one of the most terrifying science fiction movies ever.

Alien begins as the starship Nostromo is on it’s way home to Earth towing a refinery.  The crew of the Nostromo is woken up by the ship’s computer to investigate a mysterious signal that’s originating from a nearby planet.  Leaving their cargo in orbit, the crew of the Nostromo, lead by Captain Dallas(Tom Skerritt)and Second Officer Kane(John Hurt), they descend to the planet below to investigate.  They discover an alien ship that had crashed on the planet a very long time ago.  While investigating the derelict ship, Kane is attacked by an unknown life-form and left unconscious.  Arriving back on the ship with their fallen comrade, they discover the creature has acid for blood as one of it’s defense mechanisms.  Later, the creature turns up dead and Kane is awake.  They decide to have dinner before going back to their cryotubes.  Kane begins to convulse and soon his chest explodes revealing a nasty monster that takes off.  The other crew members, Ripley(Sigourney Weaver), Ash(Ian Holm), Parker(Yaphet Kotto), Brett(Harry Dean Stanton), Lambert(Veronica Cartwright), and Dallas are soon thrust into a battle for survival against a monstrous being that’s stalking them one by one.

When Alien was released in 1979, it became a world-wide phenomenon.  People had lined up down the streets to see this film.  It’s been reported that people had fainted because of how intense the movie was.  It wasn’t just because it was gory, it was, but you had no way of knowing where the creature was or where it would jump out.  Sometimes, the scariest thing is not what you see, but rather, what you DON’T see.  When three of the crew are attempting to catch the alien in a net, what pops out isn’t the creature, it’s a cat.  Yet, the tension leading up to that moment was very palpable and had you on the edge of your seat.  I know that sounds cliche, but it is also absolutely true.  When Jaws was released earlier that decade, you didn’t really see the monster very much, but you KNEW it was there.  You can create a lot of tension and fear by not showing the creature very much, and this philosophy is really apparent in Alien.

The creature itself is the stuff of nightmares, not just in the way it was born, but the way it looks, its size, and its hostility.  Designed by the late H.R. Giger, the creature became one of the most iconic movie monsters.  Giger’s artwork was very much bio-mechanical and somewhat erotic in nature, and the influence is shown in the film’s villain.  In fact, some of the themes are of a sexual nature including sexual domination and rape, as evidenced by what happened to John Hurt’s character.  So, this movie scared the living hell out of women who were pregnant, and it freaked guys out too, because the whole idea of being raped was very unusual for most guys.  Spoiler alert: What happens to Lambert is mostly implied because you don’t see her death on screen but you hear it, and when you see her body, she has no clothes on.  Also, look at how the alien kills its prey, with a secondary mouth that penetrates their skull.  There are also a few twists and turns that you don’t see coming.  There is a revelation about the science officer, Ash, that comes out of left field. There are a lot of scares to be had in this movie, and while some of them are jump-scares, the rest of it is simple tension. It’s extremely effective though.  Here’s an interesting anecdote:  During the dinner scene when Kane dies, the rest of the cast had no idea what was going to happen, so the reaction you see on their faces is their actual reaction.  They weren’t expecting Kane’s death to be so bloody and violent.

The performances by all the actors are fantastic.  Tom Skerritt takes the lead as Captain Dallas, but we also have a secondary leader in John Hurt’s character.  Parker and Brett, played by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton respectively are appropriately quirky, and somewhat downtrodden because they don’t as much money as the rest of the crew.  The real star of this movie, however, is Sigourney Weaver as Ripley.  This is the movie that made her a star.  It also proved that a woman could handle being the lead and the hero in a movie, and when Sigourney takes the reins, she becomes a tough gal who does what it takes to survive.  This opened up the doors for other women in movies to take the lead.  All of what’s happening on-screen is enhanced by the musical score by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith.  Most of it is subdued with mostly string instruments, it becomes a little bit more bombastic when the monster shows up.  The music is both haunting and beautiful.

Many critics described this film as Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Space, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment.  This movie has all the elements of a slasher movie, except the villain doing the killing isn’t human at all.  This is a movie where the unknown is terrifying.  We don’t know what we’ll find when we reach beyond our solar system.  I would certainly hope that we don’t run into a species as violent as the creature in Alien.  This film is one of the most atmospheric and intense science fiction/horror films ever produced.  It was a huge hit.  It made enough money that Fox Studios wanted a sequel, but they wanted to take the series in a different direction, so they brought on James Cameron to helm the first sequel to Alien.  I’ll review Aliens later, but it’s just as compelling a movie as the first movie was, even though it was more of an action movie.  Two more sequels followed by two spin-offs, and yet none of them came even close to matching the intensity and originality of the first two Alien movies.

I’m trying to think of some downsides to this movie, but I’m honestly coming up short.  Alien is one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made and created a universe that is both compelling and terrifying.  Look at all the books, comics and video games made over the years.  Ridley Scott himself actually returned to the universe in the movie, Prometheus.  So, what we’ve got here is a movie that is drenched in tension and atmosphere.  Not many movies can come close to achieving what Alien had achieved.  This is the movie that put Ridley Scott on the map as a director and it’s the one he’s most famous for.  Alien is also responsible for launching the career of Sigourney Weaver, who would reprise the role for three sequels.  But she’s also been in many other movies including Ghostbusters, Gorillas in the Mist, Dave, and James Cameron’s Avatar.  Overall, Alien gets a perfect 10/10.  This is an incredibly intense movie.

 

The Avengers

In 1978, one of the first and greatest comic book movies was released and kick-started a genre that has spanned hundreds of movies over the past 30 years.  Superman: The Movie was released at a time when science fiction got a major boost from Star Wars.  As a result, people were more likely to go see a science fiction film than ever before.  Superman was the first big comic book movie to come out and it was a monumental success.  No one had ever seen anything quite like it.  Over the years, we’ve seen movies about Superman, Batman, X-Men, and Spider-Man.  When Iron Man came out in 2008 by Marvel and Paramount Studios, it was the first movie to lead into a possible Avengers film.  Iron Man was a major hit with audiences around the world, so Marvel decided to make movies about Thor and Captain America.  The Hulk already had two movies, a sub-par movie in 2003 and another in 2008.  Marvel had definitely started taking steps towards a kind of movie that nobody had done before.  After multiple successful movies, production finally began on The Avengers.  In 2012, The Avengers had finally assembled.

Written and directed by Joss Whedon, The Avengers opens on a remote military installation where scientist Dr. Selvig(Stellan Skarsgaard)is researching a mysterious alien artifact known as the Tesseract.  Losing control of the cube, a portal opens and Loki(Tom Hiddleston)appears.  Loki is the adopted brother of Thor(Chris Hemsworth),and had attempted to seize control of Asgard.  Confronted by Colonel Nick Fury(Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye(Jeremy Renner), Loki casts a spell on Hawkeye and Selvig.  He proceeds to steal the Tesseract leaving the installation in ruins.  At this point, Fury gets Agent Coulson(Clark Gregg) to recruit Tony Stark/Iron Man(Robert Downey Jr), Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk(Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America(Chris Evans), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow(Scarlett Johansson).

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  This picture of the titular group in action is why this movie exists.  No one had ever brought together a group of heroes into a movie like this before.  While movies are inherently risky, The Avengers is a movie that could have easily gone horribly wrong.  Thankfully, due to the brilliant casting and direction by Joss Whedon, The Avengers is one of the most spectacular and successful comic book movies ever made.  Why does it work so well?  Oddly enough, it is the cast of characters that really make this movie as good as it is.  Each of the heroes have had their own comics.  The heavy hitters(Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America)had already been established in previous films.  Robert Downey Jr simply owns the role as Tony Stark.  Downey infuses the character with the trademark sarcasm and humor that defines Iron Man.  Chris Hemsworth brings the hammer down on his role as Thor(see what I did there?), the only other-worldly superhero of the group.  Chris Evans is fantastic as the patriotic and selfless star-spangled hero from the past.  He gives the character the leadership quality that the group needs to succeed and really knocks it out of the park.  The real interesting “hero” of the bunch is The Hulk.  Mark Ruffalo is the third actor to play Bruce Banner in 11 years, yet he seems to be the perfect fit for not just the monster, but the man who hides the monster.  Ruffalo allows the character a level of skepticism and intelligence that wouldn’t have worked with Edward Norton or Eric Bana.  As a result, Mark Ruffalo is the best Hulk yet, hands down.

The two weak links on the hero side of things, unfortunately, are Black Widow and Hawkeye.  Scarlett Johansson does a good job with the character, she’s not really given a chance to show how she can play the Russian spy.  Her introduction in the film is fantastic, though.  Jeremy Renner’s character really gets the short end of the stick, however.  Right from the get-go he’s brainwashed into fighting for Loki.  So, he’s basically a bad guy for most of the movie.  Hawkeye has always been an interesting character, because he is deadly accurate with a bow and arrow.  While that is definitely a big part of the character in the film, the way the character was treated seemed very underhanded.  He gets to show off big time in New York, though.  For the villain, we have Loki.  The character is surprisingly fleshed out.  He had lived in the shadow of his brother, Thor in the film…Thor.  He was sympathetic in Thor, because when he found out about his heritage, he basically went nuts.  In The Avengers he’s gone all out bad.  Yet, he’s fun to watch because of Tom Hiddleston’s performance.  Charismatic, yet cunning, manipulative, and ruthless, Loki is probably one of the most under-stated and undervalued comic book villains.  The supporting characters are quite interesting as well.  We have Agent Phil Coulson who’s played with a straight face by Clark Gregg.  He’s probably one of the most interesting characters in Marvel’s films.  He’s such an interesting character, that he even got the lead role on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D tv show.  Samuel L. Jackson is great as Nick Fury.  Sam Jackson is…..Sam Jackson.  What else can I say?

For a movie of this scope, one would hope that the action is spectacular.  Oh, yes.  It delivers in spades. The movie starts off with a bang on S.H.I.E.L.D’s base when Loki first shows up.  Black Widow’s introduction when she’s being interrogated by a Russian military officer gives us a glimpse at what she’s capable of.  One of the coolest scenes is when Iron Man goes up against Thor in the middle of a forest:

As you can see, this is not a movie that takes itself seriously.  Some of the bigger action sequences are epic in scale, but there’s definitely a lot humor involved here.  Yes, the destruction and the explosions are extremely impressive.  What really sells the action are the interactions between the characters.  Hulk and Thor going at it?  The way that ends is pretty damn funny.  Also, this:

The Avengers is one of those movies that is more than just entertainment.  It’s an experience.  There has never been a superhero ensemble movie before.  DC Comics is finally going to be doing Justice League, but honestly, they’ve been beaten to the punch.  Marvel is releasing The Avengers: The Age of Ultron next year, so Warner Bros. has got a lot of catching up to do.  The real big draw to Marvel’s universe is that all of these movies involving Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and The Hulk are all connected.  Some are sequels, but they are all directly connected with each other.  Marvel’s television show is also connected in many ways.  This is a very unique set of comic book movies.  Never before have so many movies been so interconnected.  The Avengers is one of those movies that could have ruined the whole thing.  Thanks to Joss Whedon and the cast of the film, that is not the case.  This is one of the most impressive superhero movies ever made.  If you like action movies, comic books or both, you owe it yourself to see this movie, if you haven’t already.  Two years after it’s release, The Avengers is still one of my all-time favorite movies.  Unfortunately, Black Widow and Hawkeye don’t really get the attention they deserve here.  Black Widow is getting her own movie, but I hope that for the next Avengers film, Clint Barton gets a better role.  My final assessment for The Avengers: 9.5/10.

Maleficent

Released: 2014

Directed by: Robert Stromberg

Cast:

Angelina Jolie: Maleficent

Elle Fanning: Aurora

Sharlto Copley: Stefan

In 1959, Walt Disney Studios gave us Sleeping Beauty, a timeless fairy tale that featured amazing artwork and animation, as well as great music and story.  But in grand Disney fashion, the one truly memorable thing about the film was its villain: Maleficent.  The strange thing about Disney villains, is that they tend to be very compelling in many ways.  With villains such as Jaffar from Aladdin, The Lion King’s Scar, and  Beauty And The Beast’s Gaston, most of Disney’s villains are extraordinarily memorable.  It can be said that a Disney picture can be measured by how strong its villain is.  Maleficent, bar none, is the most iconic and memorable villain in Disney’s catalog.  This is a monster of a character who’s more than willing to curse an innocent child for one reason or another.  In Sleeping Beauty, she does it just for the hell of it.  She’s truly evil.  Not much is really known about her motivations or why she is the way she is, but when she’s on screen, she steals the show.  I guess it’s not entirely surprising that Disney would try to make a film specifically about Maleficent, given that Disney has released updated movies about Alice In Wonderland and Snow White.


Maleficent begins in a far away land that sees two different kingdoms trying to co-exist.  One kingdom is ruled by humans and a king, and the other is ruled by all manners of creatures, including fairies, trolls and animals.  One of these beings, a young Maleficent(Isobelle Molloy, Angelina Jolie)discovers a young human, Stefan(Jackson Brews, Sharlto Copley).  A friendship brews between the two, but Stefan leaves without any explanation.  Years later, King Henry(Kenneth Cranham)has declared war on the Moors.  Maleficent has taken on the role of protector of her domain and defeats Henry in open battle.  Henry then declares the anyone who can kill Maleficent will claim the throne upon Henry’s death.  In comes Stefan, having befriended Maleficent years earlier, is able to win her trust.  Unfortunately, he sees an opportunity to take the throne for himself, so he steals Maleficent’s wings.  At this point, the story becomes more familiar as it really brings in the elements from the original Sleeping Beauty, which makes sense.  Some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the original film.  That’s not a bad thing.  What sets this movie apart from the original is that it’s told from Maleficent’s perspective, and we see why she went bad.  There have been numerous films featuring iconic villains that try to explain why they become evil.  The Star Wars prequels are guilty of this and didn’t do a particularly good job of it.

Maleficent is a movie that attempts to explore the back-story of Disney’s infamous villain.  We have a character who is pissed off and is willing to do anything to seek retribution.  That also includes cursing Aurora(Elle Fanning) to die when she turns 16.  Making a movie about a villain is a very tricky business.  It can come across as sappy or over-the-top.  Maleficent, thankfully, avoids those pitfalls and delivers a very compelling character that we CAN sympathize with.  Angelina Jolie’s performance is what really sells the entire movie.  She clearly has a great time with the character, especially when she goes into trouble-making mode.  It can be pretty funny at times, but Jolie really knocks it out of the park.  In the original film, Maleficent was a very elegant and powerful being, voice by the late Eleanor Audley.  Angelina Jolie takes the role and makes it her own, by infusing the character with her own grace and beauty.  When she dons the black outfit that made the character so intimidating in the first place, it truly evokes memories of Sleeping Beauty.  She is definitely a sight to behold.  Sharlto Copley plays King Stefan, after betraying Maleficent, begins to go insane.  Copley has been on my radar ever since the sci-fi hit, District 9.  He’s really good at playing characters that are…unhinged.  Unfortunately, the character of Stefan is a scumbag and not really given a shot at redemption.  The character really isn’t well-written in that regard, despite Copley’s performance.  Also, the character of Prince Phillip is basically a throw-away nod to the original film’s protagonist.  Then again, this movie really wasn’t about him.

The one thing that they changed from the original movie, is that they had Maleficent basically watch over Aurora as she’s growing up.  Maleficent’s reaction to Aurora is at times very amusing and very touching at others, as she develops a fondness for the child as Aurora grows up.  The relationship between the two is one of the reason to watch this movie.  It’s extraordinarily compelling and Elle Fanning’s performance as Aurora is fantastic.  Instead of being the requisite damsel in distress, Aurora is actually given more room to grow as a character and Fanning’s innocence and curiosity truly shines through.  One of the more compelling characters is Diaval(Sam Riley).  This is a guy who started out as a crow and was rescued by Maleficent.  In return, he serves Maleficent by being her spy, essentially.  Yet, he also serves as her conscience.  Riley’s performance is low-key, yet effective.

This being a fantasy film, you would expect a great deal of interesting visuals, and Maleficent delivers.  It’s spectacular right from the beginning.  From Maleficent’s kingdom to the final battle at Stefan’s castle, the film is just brimming with incredible effects and creatures.  Yes, it’s all CGI, but in this day and age, that’s really the only way to give a movie like this a real sense of grandeur.  From the tree creatures that Maleficent summons to the dragon that she turns Diaval into, the movie is rarely without astounding visuals.  It’s quite possibly one of the most visually exciting movies this year.  That’s not to say that the movie is perfect.  It’s not.  For one, while we are given some good detail as to why the titular character goes bad, we really aren’t given more detail into where she came from or who her parents were, and that’s something I would have like to see.  As I mentioned above, Stefan is kind of a one-dimensional character that serves as the movie’s antagonist.  He’s not really given a reason for why he went crazy.  Given the film’s message about the nature of revenge and redemption, I’m actually shocked to see that Stefan wasn’t really given a chance to redeem himself for his crime.  Prince Phillip is basically a throw-away character that really didn’t need to be here, despite his importance to the original film.  The three fairies that bless Aurora are fairly annoying, so when Maleficent messes with them, it’s pretty funny.  Those are about the only real issues I have with Maleficent.  Otherwise, it is a fantastic journey and the unique take on Disney’s greatest villain is extremely compelling.  This is Angelina Jolie’s movie, pure and simple.  She gives it a very surprisingly amount of emotional depth to the character that really helps the audience relate to her.  In my honest opinion, Maleficent is the surprise of the year.  It’s a spectacular film from beginning to end, that while visually engaging, also maintains an emotional core that resonates throughout the picture.  While I don’t think that Maleficent, will overtake the original film, it’s a great companion piece to one of the most extraordinary Disney movies ever made.  This one gets a 9/10.  I definitely recommend it.

 

Hercules

Released: 2014

Directed by: Brett Ratner

Cast:

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Hercules

Rufus Sewell: Autolycus

Ian McShane: Amphiaraus

John Hurt: Lord Cotys

In Greek mythology there a number of heroes whose stories have been told in various ways throughout the centuries.  But in the past 60 years, some of them have been made into movies.  Perseus, a son of Zeus who slayed Medusa, was made popular by Clash of the Titans.  Jason, who led the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece was played by Todd Armstrong in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts.  Armand Assante and Sean Bean both led the Greek armies against Troy as Odysseus in the films The Odyssey and Troy, respectively.  Only one movie stood out that featured Theseus: Immortals, starring Henry Cavill.  Achilles was played by Brad Pitt in Troy.  But the one Greek hero that has received the most attention, is Hercules.  Initially played by Steve Reeves in 1958, the character has been played by MANY throughout the years.  Some of the actors that have played the character have been: Alan Steele, Lou Ferrigno Kevin Sorbo in the 90’s television series, Tate Donovan in the Disney animated picture Hercules, and most recently: Kellan Lutz in The Legend of Hercules and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Hercules.

In Brett Ratner’s Hercules, the film opens as Hercules'(Dwayne Johnson) nephew, Iolaus(Reece Ritchie) is telling the tale of Hercule’s 12 Labors.  Some of which included slaying the Hydra, the Nemean Lion, and Erymanthian Boar.  The film then shows Iolaus being threatened by pirates who don’t believe the stories that he tells.  Enter Hercules, who carries a massive club, and his mercenary team who lay waste to the pirates.  His band of mercs includes knife-thrower Autolycus(Rufus Sewell), seer Amphiaraus(Ian McShane), the animalistic Tydeus(Aksel Hennie), and the Amazon warrior Atalanta(Ingrid Berdal).  After eliminating the pirates, they are approached by Ergenia(Rebecca Ferguson), the daughter of Lord Cotys(John Hurt).  She tells them that Thrace is being threatened by a ruthless army being led by a mysterious man named Rhesus(Tobias Santelmann).  Accepting her offer, they go to Thrace to find that half of Cotys’ army has been killed by Rhesus.  There are a couple of twists and turns throughout the film that may come across as predictable, but I’m not going to mention them.

There were two movies based on Hercules that were released this year.  The first was The Legend of Hercules, and this one.  I haven’t seen The Legend of Hercules yet.  It’s on my to-do list.  Director Brett Ratner takes an unexpected direcction with the character.  Instead of having it be a full on fantasy movie, Ratner chose to take a more realistic approach.  In the film, the 12 Labors actually happened, but the actual details of those events are more…..exaggerated to scare his enemies.  So, certain aspects of those stories are tall tales.  See, the film toys around with the idea of whether or not Hercules is the son of Zeus.  He’s certainly one of the strongest men in all of Greece, but is he the son of a god?  The film is leaning towards no, but never actually answers the question.  I find that to be a very refreshing approach to someone who everybody thinks is a demigod.  They picked the right guy to play Hercules, though: Dwayne Johnson.  The man has the charisma and more importantly, the build to play the character.  Johnson is big, and he’s intimidating.  I was very curious to see how Johnson would play Hercules and I have to admit, he does a fantastic job.  The supporting cast isn’t too bad either.  Rufus Sewell plays the wise-cracking Autolycus.  Rufus is one of those actors whose eyes are soul-piercing, and he really comes across as bad-ass.  Ian McShane is amusing as the seer.  Also a smart-ass, McShane gives the character a very unique personality of someone whose clearly not afraid, but expecting to die.  He’s absolutely okay with it.  Ingrid Berdal is the only woman of the group, Atalanta.  She’s fierce, beautiful and fearless.  Every ragtag group has to have some kind of psycho, and Aksel Hennie fits the role perfectly as Tydeus.  He’s clearly a loyal hound, but when he’s unleashed on his foes, he goes bat-shit crazy with two axes.  It’s a fun group to watch.

This is an action movie, so there has to be action.  The stuff in this movie is actually pretty damn big.  We have two major epic battle sequences featuring hundreds of warriors.  The first is the battle with Bessi warriors and the second is with Rhesus’ army.  These are brutal and bloody affairs.  Dwayne Johnson goes to town on his enemies with his club and it hits hard as you would expect someone of his size to do.  There’s arrows being shot, people getting sliced and diced with swords and axes, and people getting run over by some wildly designed chariots.  My main issue with some of these sequences is that some of the editing is a little too quick.  You can see what’s going on, but the editing reduces the impact a little bit.  Some of the visual effects seem a bit chintzy, especially towards the end of the film.

I don’t think a lot of people are going to appreciate the fact that Brett Ratner chose to make Hercules more man than god, but I think that actually helps the character’s credibility in this film.  I mean, yeah, I would’ve loved to really see him take on the gods of Olympus, but there are already movies that do that.  Overall, I think Hercules is a stronger effort than most people give it credit for.  Is it perfect?  No.  No movie is.  Some of the chinks in the film’s armor are pretty obvious, but Dwayne Johnson’s presence and the characters that make up his ragtag team of misfits make up for it.  It’s certainly not the definitive movie on Hercules, but then again, I haven’t seen one that is yet.  Some people prefer the Disney flick, others prefer the original Steve Reeves pictures.  I think this one’s a lot of fun and it has a lot going for it.  My final verdict is an 8/10.  Do yourself a favor and at least rent it.  It’s worth that much at least.