‘Alien: Covenant’ Mixes the Old and the New for a Pulse-Pounding Ride

Alien Covenant poster

With the “Alien” franchise, it always helps to keep your expectations in check. The first one, released back in 1979 was one of the scariest science-fiction movies ever made, “Aliens” was one of the most intense, “Alien 3” was one of the most infinitely depressing, and “Alien Resurrection” was the slimiest by far. When Ridley Scott, who directed “Alien,” returned to the franchise with “Prometheus,” he presented us with a film containing, as he said, “strands of ‘Alien’ DNA in it,” but it was also designed to have its own mythology and ideas while existing in the same cinematic universe. Each time, the filmmakers brought their own unique vision to this franchise and succeeded in creating something daring, and at times maddening, which no other franchise would have dared pulled off. As for the “Alien vs Predator” movies, the less said, the better.

Now Scott returns again to the franchise with another prequel, “Alien: Covenant,” which looks to be a return to basics after the mixed reaction “Prometheus” received. Sure enough, composer Jed Kurzel’s score starts off with a taste of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from “Alien” which has the audience feeling like they are entering familiar territory. But Kurzel’s music also has the music Marc Streitenfeld created for “Prometheus,” and it made me realize Scott was not about to leave the themes he explored previously in the dust.

“Alien: Covenant” picks up ten years after “Prometheus” as we come across the spaceship Covenant making its way to a remote planet where colonists intend to start a new life. These plans go awry when a neutrino blast hits the ship, killing some of the passengers and leaving the survivors in a state of devastation they cannot be expected to quickly recover from. Suddenly they intercept a human radio transmission from a nearby planet not on their charts and despite some objections, which of course are ignored, they change course to investigate. From there, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen.

Scott, as usual, works visual wonders along with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski which put us right into the action instead of just viewing it from a distance. Seeing these humans arrive on a planet we know many of them will not leave, not in one piece anyway, jacks up the tension in no time at all, and he still knows how to make those xenomorphs look more vicious than the average sci-fi creatures.

At the same time, he continues the themes of “Prometheus” with the assistance of one of its best actors, Michael Fassbender (god he has an awesome last name!). Fassbender returns as David, the synthetic android who is revealed to be alive and in one piece on this new planet, and he also plays Walter, another synthetic android assigned to look after the crew of the Covenant. Seeing David and Walter share scenes with one another prove to be some of this movie’s most fascinating for me as Fassbender makes you forget special effects were involved in him having a conversation with himself.

The balance between the themes of “Prometheus” and the typically visceral action of the average “Alien” movie is a tricky one, and Scott manages to pull it off for the most part. Still, it will be interesting to see how audiences react to this one as they may like certain parts of “Alien: Covenant” more than others.

I do wish Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper had given more attention to the characters here as many of them appear to be too one-dimensional for this movie’s own good. This franchise thrives on our getting to know these characters as individuals we can relate to, but many of them appear to exist solely for the xenomorphs to rip apart limb from limb. Some characters fare better than others, but the rest of the pack deserved more attention than they got.

Katherine Waterston, unforgettable in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” has a big challenge here as she is essentially playing the Sigourney Weaver/Ellen Ripley role as terraforming expert Daniels Branson. What I really admired about Waterston’s work here is how she never invites easy comparison to Weaver, and I never bothered spending time comparing the two actresses as the movie unfolded before me. Waterston fully embraces her character’s complex emotions as she is forced to deal with an unexpected tragedy which would easily wreck another, and she turns Daniels into formidable warrior long before the movie’s furious climax.

Another actor I got a kick out of seeing here was Danny McBride who plays the chief pilot of the Covenant, Tennessee. McBride is best known for his no-holds-barred comedic performances in “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” “The Foot Fist Way,” and the HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” and several critics have said they felt he was miscast here. I completely disagree as he brings the kind of the down-to-earth character the “Alien” movies can’t exist without as well as a subtlety which makes his emotions feel genuine and never faked. Once again, I truly believe that if you can do comedy, you can do drama.

I also have to give Billy Crudup a lot of credit for taking a character like the self-serious man of faith, Christopher Oram, who lacks the confidence a leader should have and making him into someone more human than any other actor could have. I say this because this kind of character usually comes across as totally annoying and infinitely idiotic, but Crudup succeeds in making Christopher down to earth and more empathetic than you might expect. And those scenes he has with Fassbender in the latter half? Priceless.

Does “Alien: Covenant” reach the exhilarating heights of the first two “Alien” movies? No, but I wasn’t surprised it didn’t. We have long since gotten used to these vicious creatures to where they aren’t as terrifying as when we first met them. Still, I found “Alien: Covenant” to be a pulse-pounding ride with strong performances, a sleek design and the kind of stunning look you can always expect from the average Ridley Scott film. It pays homage not just to its predecessors, but also to “Blade Runner” as well, and it has an infinitely unnerving conclusion which reminds us all that in space, no one can hear you scream.

Just try to go into it with an open mind. There is a bit of the old here which I know fans will enjoy, but there is also a lot of thought put into the story which you don’t often get with the usual summer blockbuster.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Remains an Exceptionally Intense Experience

Alien movie poster

In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.

Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.

Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.

There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.

Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.

But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.

As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.

A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.

All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.

I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Soundtrack Review: ‘Lethal Weapon 3’

Lethal Weapon 3 soundtrack

We are now at the 25th anniversary of the release of “Lethal Weapon 3” in theaters, something I have a hard time accepting as I still remember seeing it for the first time like it was yesterday.

With it being the third movie in a highly successful franchise, “Lethal Weapon 3” settles into a familiar formula which, as this sequel proves, still works. Director Richard Donner and stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover were interested in making this film more of a comedy, and we get the usual gunfights, explosions and car chases which are all expertly filmed. In addition, we also get another thrilling music score from the composers who worked on the previous “Lethal Weapon” movies: Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton, and David Sanborn.

I still remember the first time I saw “Lethal Weapon 3” and how gleefully entertained I was while watching it. I also loved the score for it as well even if it sounded recycled from the previous two films. After seeing this sequel twice in one week, I couldn’t wait to buy the soundtrack in the hopes it would have more of the music I expected to hear on the soundtracks to “Lethal Weapon” and “Lethal Weapon 2.” But yet again, the commercial release of the “Lethal Weapon 3” soundtrack left me disappointed despite some good tracks (“Armour Piercing Bullets” was the standout) included on it. Furthermore, it only had a portion of Kamen’s, Clapton’s and Sanborn’s music score on it.

But now we have a brand-new expanded and remastered soundtrack for “Lethal Weapon 3” which includes two compact discs containing all of the music cues I prayed would be on the 1992 commercial soundtrack release. It is being released as part of La La Land Records’ “Lethal Weapon Soundtrack Collection” box set, and it is gratifying to listen to this score in its entirety.

This film score starts off with a whimsical feel as Riggs and Murtaugh try to disarm a bomb and end up failing to do so quite explosively. Busted down from detectives to beat cops, they are at the scene of an armored car robbery and immediately jump into action. This leads to one of my favorite tracks on the first disc entitled “Armoured Car Chase.” Hearing the three composers come together to create such a thrilling piece of music made watching this sequence all the more exciting.

My other favorite tracks on this expanded soundtrack are “Gun Battle” which is the same piece of music as “Armour Piercing Bullets,” and it always succeeds in getting me super excited to where I can see myself in appearing in an action movie. Another is “Fire/Fire Battle/A Quiet Evening by the Fire” which gives the movie’s action climax an equally thrilling and highly emotionally effect which reminds you of how the “Lethal Weapon” movies are as big on character as they are on unforgettable action set pieces.

The second disc of “Lethal Weapon 3” features the commercial release of the soundtrack which includes the songs “It’s Probably Me” by Sting and Clapton, and “Runaway Train” performed by Clapton and Elton John. The rest are pieces of the score by Kamen, Clapton and Sanborn, and there are some additional tracks featuring alternate versions of music cues. I have to give credit to La La Land Records for including the original album on this special release instead of just trying to bury it under a rug or something.

Jeff Bond, whose booklet “Some Movies Don’t Invent Genres: They Just Perfect Them” accompanies the “Lethal Weapon Soundtrack Collection,” writes about how Donner decided to put more of an emphasis on comedy and family with this sequel. Still, there were some new additions like renegade ex-cop Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson) and Internal Affairs officer Lorna Cole (Rene Russo) to give “Lethal Weapon 3” the dark edge it needed. It also was revealed Lorna was originally written as a male character. For those who have seen the movie, I think we can all agree the change in gender was a very welcome one. Who else but Russo could have inhabited this role so memorably?

In regards to the score, Bond makes it clear Kamen, Clapton, and Sanborn did not phone this one in at all. Unlike the previous “Lethal Weapon” movies, this one starts out with a song performed by Sting. The song was “It’s Probably Me,” and Bond quotes Sting as saying his idea behind it was that Riggs and Murtaugh are such macho guys to where they wouldn’t express their love for one another right away.

Bond also points out Kamen did intentionally stick with the formula which made the scores to the previous movies work so well. But at the same time, this score shows how talented Kamen and company are in scoring the most humorous scenes as well. In “Lethal Weapon” and “Lethal Weapon 2,” Kamen succeeded at balancing action spectacles with character driven moments. But in “Lethal Weapon 3,” he also proves to be a master at adding to the endless laughs which were to be had in this sequel.

Once again, La La Land Records has given us another great special edition of a soundtrack long overdue for an expanded release. Here’s hoping they release more remastered and expanded soundtracks I have spent decades waiting for in the future. Can an expanded release of Harold Faltemeyer’s film score for “Fletch” be far behind?

Save

Michelle Monaghan and Ron Livingston on the Making of ‘Fort Bliss’

Fort Bliss movie poster

Claudia Myers’ “Fort Bliss” deals with something we don’t see much in movies: the challenges of being a female soldier and a single mom at the same time. The movie stars Michelle Monaghan as U.S. army medic Maggie Swann who has just returned home after serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But instead of arriving to greet her son Paul (Oakes Fegley) at the air base, she instead finds him back at home with his dad, her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston), and stepmom, and he doesn’t really remember her much. From there, Maggie works to repair the bond between her and Paul before her duties in the military threaten to tear them apart yet again.

Both Monaghan and Livingston dropped by the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Fort Bliss’” press day, and it was fascinating to hear about their experiences making this particular movie. This was a very low budget production, so there wasn’t much time for anyone to waste. I always wondered how actors deal with the lack of time because we are led to believe they are used to working on movies which allow them to take a nap in their trailers between takes while the crew sets up for the next shot. But while having fewer resources can seriously affect some actors, Monaghan and Livingston did not let any limitations stand in their way.

“There’s something really exciting about the idea that they just don’t have time to micromanage you in your performance, so there’s a lot more responsibility to just show up,” Livingston said. “Your first take on it is gonna be the take that goes into the movie by and large unless it’s really egregious because there’s not a lot of time to waste tinkering with it, you know?”

“It is true that you don’t have a lot of time to play with it,” Monaghan said. “I think that’s why the prep time becomes so essential for an independent film. It’s your responsibility as an actor or a director or a writer to really play your part. You can’t just turn up and expect all these experts to show you something on the day. That’s really, really important. That’s a part of our job, and also we shot this movie in 21 days. It was so incredibly exciting because we were living, eating and breathing it. We shot in two different locations in and around Los Angeles and then Fort Bliss (in El Paso, Texas) with the help of the Army. With all their resources, the production value looks by far more than what we had for it.

“21 days with combat sequences is pretty incredible,” Livingston noted.

Again, I imagine some actors would have preferred to have more time to prepare for the roles, but they don’t always have that opportunity. When it comes down to it, they have to work with what they are given instead of complain about what’s working against them. For Monaghan, the fact there wasn’t a lot of down time on the set of “Fort Bliss” didn’t affect her too much.

“There’s not (a lot of down time), but I always tend to find that I feel the strongest about performances in general when they’re shot in that way because you’re in it,” Monaghan said. “You are in the thick of it, and to say that I go to sleep at night and dream about the character and the role, you are. It’s 21 days where you’re attacking it for that period of time, and you don’t have time to think about it. Good things tend to come from that.”

One of the best scenes in “Fort Bliss” comes at the beginning when Maggie and dozens of other troops are returning home from Afghanistan. It looked like the production succeeded in hiring the best background extras they could find as they looked so incredibly enthusiastic in welcoming the soldiers home, but it turns out there was a lot more authenticity involved than we realized.

“When you see the coming home scenes at the beginning, it was truly people of soldier’s families, military wives, husbands, and children that two days prior had just welcomed one of those big planes home,” Monaghan said. “Fort Bliss sent out an email saying, ‘Would you guys come back two days later to shoot a scene?’ So they brought back all their signs and it was amazing. The military band was there and even the Harley Davison guys came back and all the former vets with their bikes and everything. Everybody was so proud to be there. That’s so profound to be able to have that experience and to feel that energy of what it’s like and everybody hugging one another. To be able to have that access and that resource was so invaluable. We constantly had that throughout the process of filming. I say this film has been so blessed, but it has. I’m so grateful to everybody in how far reaching the efforts that everybody has gone to.”

“Fort Bliss” may be coming in under the radar, but it is truly deserving of your attention. It deals with the female perspective of war and how women still have a stigma attached to them whenever they serve in the military. Many expect women to stay at home and be a mother to their children instead of fighting wars overseas, but life continues to be more complicated than we expect it to be, and nothing is ever that simple.

You can also check out this video interview I did with Monaghan and Livingston which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul’ is Too Long Even at 90 Minutes

Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul poster

With “Diary of a Wimpy Kind: The Long Haul,” I enter this long-running movie franchise a fresh newbie. I have not seen the previous entries, and this will save me the trouble of comparing this one to what came before. This one also has an entirely new cast of actors as the previous cast had other things to do or simply got too old to play the roles they made famous. But if this sequel truly equals its predecessors in terms of quality, I have all the reason in the world to avoid them at all costs.

As you may be able to discern from its title, “The Long Haul” is a road movie as we watch the Heffley family travel in a minivan to visit their grandmother for her 90th birthday. However, young Greg Heffley (Jason Drucker), the hero of this series, has other plans as he and his brother Rodrick (Charlie Wright, who looks a lot like Ezra Miller here) intend to escape their parents’ loving clutches and go to a video game convention where they can redeem their meager social status and become mega-popular in the eyes of their schoolmates.

At this point in my life, I feel like I have seen every road movie ever made, and this made watching “The Long Haul” especially cloying and painfully irritating. This one has shamelessly stolen from all the classics like “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Midnight Run,” “Lost in America” and “Tommy Boy” among others to where this feels like a greatest hits collection performed by a cover band that cannot come close to equaling what the original artists pulled off. The filmmakers could have taken this material and made it all their own, but perhaps the studio executives were more interested in making this movie seem as bland and generic as humanly possible.

Seriously, every single cliché from road movies is on display in “The Long Haul.” You have the family staying at a motel which should be condemned and has a pool the kids are excited about swimming in until they discover it is either empty or grossly polluted. There’s also plenty of flatulence jokes, family members getting mud all over them while trying to move their car, parents singing songs their kids can’t stand, a kid vomiting while on an amusement park ride, and there’s a spoof of the “Psycho” shower scene, a classic scene which has been spoofed to death. The only thing missing is Christie Brinkley driving along in her red Ferrari which, while this is a PG-rated movie, would have been a welcome sight.

Over the years, I have come to resent movies about young kids as they fail to represent them realistically and instead present them as types of characters designed to appeal to a certain demographic. At least Greg Heffley, the main character of this series, resembles someone we can relate to as his anxieties remind us of how horrifying it was to be socially ostracized at school. But everyone else here is designed to fill a certain niche, and the actors, as a result, can only do so much with the shallow material they have been given.

If there is one thing I liked about “The Long Haul,” it was Alicia Silverstone who plays the matriarch of the Heffley family, Susan. It’s been a long time since she stole our hearts in “Clueless” and all those Aerosmith music videos, and she remains as appealing as ever even as the screenplay fails her constantly. Ever since her big breakthrough, she hasn’t been seen as much and has been largely relegated to projects which, more often than not, fly under the radar. But seeing her here reminded me of what a wonderful presence she can be in any movie, and that’s even though this one is largely undeserving of her talents.

Directing “The Long Haul” is David Bowers who was a storyboard artist on “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and directed the vastly underrated animated film “Flushed Away.” Rumor has it Bowers wanted to make this “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” sequel into an animated film, and I truly believe it would have been a far more interesting cinematic experience if he had done that instead. The books themselves have a unique cartoon style which I think would lend itself well to a feature film, but as this series has been a live action one for three movies, I imagine studio executives were not about to change anything up.

When all is said and done, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” is an endlessly irritating exercise in futility, and I’m not even sure fans of this franchise will find much to enjoy here. I snickered through most of it, and I don’t recall laughing once. Instead, I found myself wondering why the characters’ cell phones never seemed to run out of energy. I mean, there should have at least been one scene where they plugged them into a power source as I find myself recharging mine every other half hour. Also, that slide the kids travel down at the movie’s start is red and, when they come out at the end, suddenly turns blue. Glaring errors like these became far more interesting to me than anything else in this sequel’s 90-minute running time.

Seriously, save your money and binge watch “Freaks & Geeks” instead as it represents a far more entertaining example of growing up a kid. It was a brilliant show, and like all brilliant shows which aired on network television, it lasted only one season.

* out of * * * *

Haley Joel Osment Comes of Age in ‘Tusk’

Tusk Haley Joel Osment

It feels like it has been forever since we have seen Haley Joel Osment in anything. Ever since his unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance as Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense,” he has gone on to do memorable work in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” “Pay it Forward” and “Secondhand Lions” in which he co-starred with the actor who beat him out for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Sir Michael Caine. But after that, he disappeared to where we thought he had become just another child actor who couldn’t make the transition to an adult acting career like Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster did.

Well, it turns out he was away at New York University studying experimental theater, and this later led to him making his Broadway debut in a revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” These days he does a lot of voiceover work, he has a recurring role on the Amazon series “Alpha House” and he is starring in Kevin Smith’s latest film “Tusk.” In it, he plays Teddy Craft who, along with his friend Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), hosts a podcast show called “The Not-See Party.” When Wallace suddenly goes missing while he’s in Canada, Teddy and Wallace’s girlfriend Ally Leon (Génesis Rodríguez) travel there to find him, and what they discover is… Well, just see the movie.

Osment looks like he’s having a lot of fun as Teddy, and you really get the sense he is a natural for podcasting. “Tusk” is certainly one of the weirder and more original movies to come out in a while, and he explained what drew him to it.

“The writing was so good,” Osment said of Smith’s screenplay. “The characters were clear and then he (Smith) kind of does this cool thing where, once he got to know us on set, he would just generate material based on just starting to know us more. He wrote that great monologue for Genesis and an extended podcasting scene for me and Justin. He will answer any question you ask him, but his big thing was always saying ‘remember to have fun’ and stuff like that. He isn’t someone saying, ‘Hey, remember to get this part of the character’ or something. He trusts his actors to do that.”

For me, I was very interested in how Osment made the transition to becoming an adult actor. It’s never easy, and Hollywood does have a reputation for chewing up actors and spitting them out. But Osment has come out on the other side looking like a wonderfully down to earth human being, and he remains a terrific actor after all these years. When I asked him how tough his career transition was, his response was simple and to the point.

“As an actor, I feel really lucky because I have been lucky enough to have a lot of experiences on sets and still be relatively young,” Osment said. “It’s fun because your body is kind of your instrument and, if you’re getting old over a period of time and everything, I just remember doing characters as a kid. Now being an adult and having a romantic interest and things like that, the variety is just really exciting so I guess I feel lucky.”

Seriously, it’s great to see Osment keeping busy. I imagine we will see a lot more of him soon, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

Genesis Rodriguez is Ready for her Closeup in ‘Tusk’

Tusk Genesis Rodriguez

She has left her mark in a number of Telemundo telenovelas as well as in movies like “Identity Thief,” “The Last Stand” and “Casa de mi Padre,” but in Kevin Smith’s “Tusk,” Génesis Rodríguez shows the world just how good of an actress she can be. She plays Ally Leon, the girlfriend of Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), and she tries to make him see what a selfish person he has become thanks to the fame his podcast “The Not-See Party” has brought him. But as much as Ally criticizes his shortcomings, she is reduced to tears when she accepts the fact they come to mirror her own.

“Tusk” has been the subject of a lot of talk ever since Smith announced it as his next project. The idea came about from an episode of “SModcast” where he and co-host Scott Mosier read an ad about a man offering a rent-free situation for a tenant who is willing to dress up as a walrus and make walrus sounds all day long. It makes for one of the more unique movies, and many were eager to find out what exactly drew the actors to be in it.

Rodríguez was at “Tusk’s” press day held at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and she was asked about her initial reaction to Smith’s screenplay.

“Reading the script, I made the big mistake of reading it at midnight,” Rodríguez said with a laugh. “I know, big mistake, so I couldn’t go to sleep. I literally thought about the walrus all night. I started listening to The Beatles and it was just like I went ‘goo goo goo goo joob’ totally. And then afterward I heard the SModcast episode and then I became obsessed with the idea. It was like, okay, this is the kind of movie I want to do. It’s clearly not a remake (laughs) so it’s good to be a part of something so unique and so different and to leave your little mark on such I thought was gonna be, the minute I read it, a cult favorite whether you hate it or love it. It’s that kind of movie. It’s memorable, that’s for sure (laughs).”

For me, the highlight of Rodríguez’s performance was her close-ups in which she confesses to Long her confused emotions which are tearing her apart. It turns out Smith, once he got to know her better, wrote a monologue for her to perform, and she ends up performing it in a truly riveting fashion. Seeing the stream of emotions crossing her face during this close-up held my attention to where everything else around me went completely silent. I was eager to learn how she pulled this monologue and the close ups off, and her answer implied it involved her not knowing one specific thing.

“Thankfully, I didn’t know how close up they were,” Rodríguez said of the cameras. “It kind of freaked me out, but I just let the dialogue guide me to an emotion and I tried to make it as honest as possible. I’ve never had that shot to really show that side of myself in the movies, so I just wanted to do Kevin justice, and he took a chance on writing me that monologue. I hope I did him proud.”

The way I see it, Rodriguez did Smith proud.

Save

‘Tusk’ Should Not Be Mistaken for a Mainstream Film

Tusk movie poster

To be honest, I’m glad Kevin Smith hasn’t retired from filmmaking (or at least, not yet). I’ve enjoyed all his movies except for “Cop Out,” which I’m sure he doesn’t care for either. When it comes to “Red State,” I found it to be a major leap out of Smith’s safety zone which resulted in his best directorial effort yet. Now we have “Tusk,” his second visit to the horror genre and one of the more original and bizarre movies to come out in a long time. It has its moments of comedy, but it is mostly a serious film dealing with one American’s journey into Canada and of the horrific fate awaiting him there.

Justin Long stars as Wallace Bryton, one of the hosts of a popular podcast called “The Not-See Party” (get it?), and he and his good friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) live to have fun at the expense of others. Their latest target is the “Kill Bill Kid” who accidentally sliced off one of his legs with a sword while attempting to perform one of that movie’s famous moves, and Wallace decides he and Teddy should travel to Canada to interview him. Teddy, however, doesn’t like to fly, so Wallace goes over there all by his lonesome.

When Wallace gets to Canada, he discovers the “Kill Bill Kid” has died which leaves him without an interview. Despondent, he stops by a bar where he discovers a handbill from a man who claims to have a lifetime of stories to tell, and he is offering free room and board to those interested in hearing him out. Wallace jumps at the chance to listen to what he has to say and travels out to the man’s house which, like in any other horror movie, is located in the middle of nowhere. It is there he meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound old man who regales Wallace with tales of his life at sea. One of those tales involves a ship he was on which sank and led to him meeting a walrus who saved him from drowning. Howard came to name the walrus Mr. Tusk, and he still considers Mr. Tusk to be the best companion he ever had.

As Howard continues to talk, Wallace begins to lose consciousness as, like those horny teenagers in “Red State,” he has been drugged and eventually passes out. When Wallace wakes up, he finds himself in the hands of a man intent on turning him into a walrus. We all know what curiosity did to the cat, but Wallace looks to be heading towards a fate far worse than death here.

I don’t think it’s any secret of what happens to Wallace in “Tusk,” and perhaps it is best for those who haven’t seen the movie yet to stop reading this review now. The inspiration for this movie came from “SModcast,” a weekly podcast Smith does with Scott Mosier. On one episode they talked about an ad from a British website where a man was offering free room and board for anyone willing to dress up in a walrus suit and make walrus noises while he throws them fish and crabs to eat. We get to hear some of this episode during “Tusk’s” end credits, and Smith and Mosier are laughing their asses off as they discuss how the movie would play out. Seriously, it got to where I was kind of amazed at how the story evolved from the podcast to this finished movie.

Like “Red State,” “Tusk” is not the kind of horror movie designed to make you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Instead, it is more about people confronted with a terrifying situation which proves to be way beyond their control, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. Robert Kurtzman was the effects artist, so that should give you an idea of just how horrific Wallace’s transformation is. It may not quite equal what Jeff Goldblum went through in “The Fly,” but it does provide the audience with a very unsettling visual.

Long has a tricky role to play as Wallace is a very obnoxious dude who almost doesn’t yet realize just how rude he is to others. His interactions with Canadian residents provide “Tusk” with some of its most amusing moments, and that’s especially the case when he meets a border agent played by Harley Morenstein who doesn’t hesitate to explain the differences between the United States and Canada. You can’t help but feel bad for Wallace even though he’s a bit of a jerk. I like to think this gave Long an interesting arc to play as he goes from being an egotistical prick to a helpless victim who is not exactly deserving of the fate which awaits him.

We do get a few flashbacks which show Wallace hanging out with his girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez) who is starting to accuse him of being a sellout, and she admits to missing the old Wallace as a result. Wallace, however, is more smitten with the new version of himself and doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. To say that this comes back to haunt Wallace is the understatement of the year.

Rodriguez, I have to say, has some really strong close-ups here where she holds the audience at bay with her emotional conflicts. As much as she loves Wallace, she is not blind to his misdeeds which eventually come to reflect her own. Rodriguez previously appeared in “Identity Thief” and “Casa de mi Padre,” and she looks almost completely unrecognizable here. Gloria Swanson may have told Mr. DeMille in “Sunset Boulevard” that she was ready for her close-up, but she wasn’t as ready as Rodriguez is here.

It’s also great to see Osment here whom we all remember from “The Sixth Sense.” He’s grown up now (deal with it) and gives a multilayered performance here as Teddy. Explaining why is tough because it would be giving away one too many things, but it shows that Osment has entered into an adult acting career with confidence, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

But let’s be honest, the real reason to see “Tusk” is Michael Parks. His performance as Howard Howe is truly a master class in acting, and he takes what could have been an utterly ridiculous character and turns him into a pitiful and truly haunted soul, not to mention an utterly terrifying one. Seeing him dive right into this role with such a giddy exuberance and spout off classic lines of literature is invigorating, and it quickly reminded me of how annoyed I was that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work in “Red State.”

“Tusk” does, however, fall apart a bit during the second half when we get introduced to a French-Canadian detective named Guy LaPointe. His appearance comes out of nowhere, and it leads to a cameo which goes on for far too long. Now you may or may not know the identity of the actor playing LaPointe, but I’m not going to reveal it here because it honestly took me a minute or two to realize who it was. There is something to be said for an actor who disappears into their part, and this one succeeded in doing so thanks to a nice nose job. Still, the character feels out of place.

It’s best to go into “Tusk” with an open mind, and this especially goes for Kevin Smith fans. Some may say he is traveling through familiar territory here, but I don’t think he is. True, it does have a couple of convenience store clerks (both of whom will be appearing in Smith’s next movie, “Yoga Hosers”) and there are a lot of in-jokes throughout, but here he is exploring the possibility of a man’s humanity surviving a cruel and life altering event.

I also got to say, looking at this movie’s title, that I kept wondering if the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk” would be featured here. Is it? Well, see the movie to find out.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Red State’ is the Best and Most Unlikely Film from Kevin Smith

Red State movie poster

Red State” is to Kevin Smith as “Unforgiven” was to Clint Eastwood; a game changer in the way we perceive him as an artist. Any shred of Jay and Silent Bob is completely absent here as he probes the horror of an ultra-fundamentalist church whose fear of God prompts a siege of destruction which tests its members as well as those ordered to bring them down. Nothing Smith has done previously will prepare you for what he comes up with in “Red State.” We know he’s been looking to do something other than “Clerks” or those formulaic comedies he has spent far too long apologizing for. With this one, his creativity and passion for moviemaking are completely reinvigorated.

The movie starts off innocently enough with one of Smith’s favorite subjects: young men talking about sex. Three teens named Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray drive out to a remote area and meet up with a woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo) who has promised to make out with each of them. But after a couple of beers, they pass out and wake up to find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist cult led by God-fearing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who seeks to punish those who have morally corrupted America whether they be homosexuals or adulterers among other sinners. But when things get out of hand, as they always do, the church is forced to make a last stand as the police and FBI intervene in a showdown destined to have a bad ending.

The Five Points Church is Smith’s not so subtle representation of that church which is known for protesting funerals of homosexuals and dead soldiers. You probably know the church he’s referring to. For those of you who don’t, you can just figure it out on your own. While we see them for the fascist hate mongers they are, you have to wonder what draws anyone to a church with such unrealistic and obscene views. Some are just looking for an answer, and any answer after a while will do to give their life meaning. Whether or not you believe in the beliefs of the Five Points Church or that church is beside the point; what should concern you is there are people out there who do believe in the ridiculously hateful things they have been taught, and they will do anything to defend those values at any cost.

The leader of that church can only dream of being as charismatic as Abin Cooper. Michael Parks performance is nothing short of brilliant as he makes you believe that people can fall under the spell of a religious pervert. Parks was introduced to a whole new generation of fans when he played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk till Dawn,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and “Grindhouse.” After watching him in “Red State,” you come out wondering why he is not a bigger star. Parks doesn’t just give us a mere impersonation of some maniac preacher. Instead, he gives us an infinitely charismatic portrayal of a deeply religious man who is as seductive as he is dangerous.

With the actors, Smith just lets them loose to do their own thing, and the results are enthralling. Melissa Leo, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance in “The Fighter,” gives it her all as Cooper’s daughter Sarah. Her emotional conviction in this role is proof of how far Cooper’s influence as a preacher goes, and Leo remains one of the best actresses working today.

Another big standout is John Goodman who plays ATF Special Agent Keenan. Goodman has always been a great actor, but you get the sense after so many years that most people don’t recognize him as such. His work in “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” should be more than enough to convince you of his greatness. Anyway, he gives some of the film’s best speeches as his character is forced into a situation which goes against his moral values, but it is a situation he cannot simply override. Goodman inhabits this character perfectly, giving him the emotional turmoil and confusion etched all over his face.

Other great performances come from Kerry Bishé as Sarah’s daughter, Cheyenne, and she is ever so intense in her desperation to save the women and children whom she feels will fall victim to the government’s actions for the wrong reasons. Kevin Pollak provides memorable support as Keenan’s right-hand man, Special Agent Brooks. You also have to give credit to the three young actors playing the teens: Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun. The roles they are given appear one-dimensional, but they bring more to the material than what is on the page, and they give you a reason to care about what happens to them.

Smith’s movies in the past have dealt with conversations about pop culture, but there’s none of this in “Red State.” He instead exploits certain movie conventions which have us believing we’ve figured the whole story out, and then he pulls out the rug from under us. The violence is truly shocking as characters meet their fates in a way we don’t see coming. This is not your typical good guys versus bad guys story as everyone here is morally flawed in one way or another. The events of David Koresh’s demise in Waco, Texas hang heavily over the proceedings, and no one looks to come out of this a hero.

This movie could have been a simple look at the damage caused by religious perversion, but there are different levels at work here. We see how the church, the government, and the local police react to the violent situation they are all immersed in. Look closely at the end credits; the cast is divided by religion, police, and politics. It becomes about containment by any means necessary. So, when all is said and done, no one’s coming out of this battle in one piece.

Working with his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, Smith finds a unique look for this movie thanks to the RED digital camera. Both are able to get shots which give the material a visceral feel you wouldn’t expect from the director of “Jersey Girl.” The flexibility they find with this device feels inspirational as it allows them to do things they couldn’t do previously.

Smith still seems determined to retire from making movies, and that’s a shame. “Red State” represents a new chapter in his long career which has me begging him to keep on going. It’s not a horror movie in the usual sense of things jumping out at you to give you an easy scare. Instead, it shows horror we find in everyday life. Who knew he would capture it to such powerful effect? In a time when the voices of independent movies appear to be gasping their last breath, Smith shows himself to be the last man standing and gives us a reason why we can’t let movies like his simply fade away.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Paul Verhoeven and Company Revisit ‘Total Recall’ in Hollywood

Total Recall movie poster

On Friday, August 24, 2012, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven dropped by the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood where American Cinematheque screened a 70mm print of his 1990 movie “Total Recall.” Joining Verhoeven for a Q&A after the movie was two of its screenwriters, Ronald Shusett and Gary Goldman. They discussed the rigors of making the movie, and of how the script eventually made its way out of development hell.

As we all know by now, “Total Recall” is loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Shusett said he and the late Dan O’Bannon, writer of “Dark Star” and “Alien,” bought the rights to the story back in 1974, and they completed their first draft in 1981. From there it was set to be made into a movie, but the project kept falling apart time and time again. Filmmakers like Bruce Beresford and David Cronenberg had worked on it for a long time but eventually pulled out due to creative differences or studios canceling the project because of its enormous budget.

“Everything kept falling through over and over again,” Shusett said. “Sets were built, but then the project kept getting canceled because it was too expensive. Back in 1990, this was considered to be the most expensive movie ever made. I wanted to keep all those sets that were built from being torn down, and I asked one studio executive how I could save them. He responded that I should change the movie’s name to ‘Partial Recall.’”

Verhoeven got involved in “Total Recall” because Arnold Schwarzenegger had picked him to direct after seeing “Robocop.” Schwarzenegger had actually been interested in doing the movie for a long time and had encouraged Carolco Pictures producer Mario Kassar to buy the rights to it from Dino De Laurentis whose film company had gone into bankruptcy. The movie had already gone through many drafts, and it took one specific scene to pique Verhoeven’s interest:

“I came to the scene where Dr. Edgemar (played by Roy Brocksmith) visits Arnold’s character on Mars and tells him that he’s not really here,” Verhoeven said. “In that moment you are not sure if what you’re seeing is real or a dream, and that got me really excited because none of the movies I had made in Europe ever had a scene like that. What Edgemar tells Arnold is that what he is experiencing is not true, so we had to prove it wasn’t true again.”

Working with Carolco Pictures on “Total Recall” was “paradise,” Verhoeven said, as they never forced anything on the filmmaker other than actors they hand-picked to star in their movies. He also said the beauty of Carolco is that they never subjected him or the movie to test screenings. Verhoeven went on to make “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” for Carolco, and then the gigantic flop that was “Cutthroat Island” ended up forcing the company into bankruptcy.

Schwarzenegger was set to be the star of “Total Recall” no matter who directed it, and Verhoeven said he was perfectly fine with that. Changes in the story had to be made though as his character was originally an accountant. Verhoeven and the screenwriters ended up changing his profession to that of a construction worker as they all agreed you could not go around Arnold.

Verhoeven also pointed out how having Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall” made the movie “very light” which was great because, as put it, “the straight way of telling the story would not have worked.” This has been further proved by Len Wiseman’s remake of the movie which even Verhoeven admitted “wasn’t good.”

The main problem with adapting any Philip K. Dick story to the silver screen is that they are basically told in two acts, and finding a third act proved to be very difficult.

“I got really scared because there had already been forty drafts written, and we could never seem to figure the third act out,” Verhoeven said. “It eventually came down to Hauser (Schwarzenegger’s secret agent character) always being the bad guy as it gave us somewhere to go.”

One audience member asked Verhoeven how Sharon Stone got cast in “Total Recall:”

“Sharon came in the first day of casting, and after a half hour I was convinced she would be perfect as Lori,” Verhoeven said. “Once we were filming the movie, however, I came to realize what she could do as an actress. After one fight scene where she almost kills Rachel Ticotin’s character and Arnold aims a gun right at her, she quickly changes moods in what seemed like a heartbeat. It was Sharon’s final scene before her character was shot that made me want to choose her for ‘Basic Instinct.’”

Goldman told the audience movies like “The Matrix” and “Inception” wouldn’t have happened without Verhoeven’s pushing the idea of the dream in “Total Recall.” The audience applauded this sentiment loudly, and the movie still holds up well more than twenty years after its release. It’s a shame the producers of the recent remake failed to realize what made the original so good as one of them described Verhoeven’s movie as being “kitsch.” That producer is now eating their own words in the wake of the remake’s critical and commercial disappointment.