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Posts Tagged ‘Sigourney Weaver’

All movie monsters are metaphorical, but few of them are quite so up-front about it as the title character of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, a film which has already earned the coveted title of First Thing I Saw In A Theatre In 2017. This is not even the most distinguished plaudit to be heaped upon the movie, for it has already been described as ‘the best film of the year’ – though which year we’re talking about is, perhaps intentionally, a little unclear (was it the year it was advertised in or the year it’s being released in?). I’m not sure I would go that far myself but this is still an interesting and accomplished film.

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This movie is based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who I was previously only really aware of as the head honcho of the online Doctor Who spin-off Class, about which perhaps the less said the better. Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O’Malley, a young boy with serious issues far beyond the fact that his name is arguably spelt wrong. His mother, played by Felicity Jones, is very seriously ill – yes, I know, it’s getting to the point where Jones has less chance than Sean Bean of getting to the closing credits of a film – and Conor has to some extent been thrown on the mercies of his severe and distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, imported to help with that crucial US distribution, and deploying a pretty decent English accent) and largely-absent father (a rare performance by Toby Kebbell that remains untouched throughout by prosthetics or CGI).

What with also being viciously bullied at school, it’s all getting a bit much for the lad, and his tribulations are accompanied by the manifestation of a huge monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who, it must be said, does look rather like Vin Diesel’s character from a certain hugely popular Marvel sub-franchise. The monster insists that he has been summoned for a purpose, and that there are important tales to be told and deep secrets to be revealed in the days to come… (At no point does Sigourney Weaver appear in a fork-lift truck and start battling the monster, which I kind of guessed was never going to happen – it was still a tiny bit disappointing, though.)

I wasn’t really aware of Bayona prior to seeing this film, though of course it turns out he’s handled some fairly major releases, but while watching it I completely assumed he was an English director, so convincing is its depiction of the texture of British life and society. I was rather surprised, therefore, when the closing credits rolled and it turned out everyone in the crew had names like Enrique and Pedro: yup, this is an Anglo-Spanish co-production, partly even filmed in Spain (other bits filmed in my old haunt of Preston, somewhere not frequently mistaken for the Iberian peninsula). Perhaps this explains the script’s occasional, very slightly distracting lapses into American English (Mom instead of Mum, for instance).

But, as I say, you don’t really notice any of this while you’re actually watching the film. This is the kind of film where it’s more or less clear from the trailer exactly what’s going to go on: a wrenching tale of how harsh and cruel life can be, counterpointed by a fantastical metaphor that serves to give the thing a bit of life and imagination and stop it from just being utterly soul-stampingly grim. And for the first part of the film, this was exactly what I was given, to the point where I got a bit restive and started to wonder just what all the critics had been getting so excited about.

Then a few things happened: the script got slightly more sophisticated than I’d expected – ‘honestly, this is just a dream, can we get on with it,’ says Conor at one point during a visit by the monster, proving he is just as clued up as the audience – while the animation used to realise the stories told by the monster is genuinely beautiful in its own right. And the story – well, I’m not sure that there’s anything strikingly original about it, to be honest, but it’s told with such skill and sincerity that it doesn’t feel like something that you’ve seen before. (Well, perhaps with one exception – quite apart from the monster looking like Groot’s dad, there’s a key scene in this film which is almost a reprise of an equally important one in Guardians of the Galaxy.)

I think mostly it comes down to the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Lewis MacDougall gives a quite astonishingly assured and mature performance as Conor, in no way upstaged by playing scenes opposite heavyweights like Neeson or Weaver. (It was only after seeing the film that I learned the young actor suffered a close family bereavement shortly before making it.) Even Toby Kebbell, who I really assumed was only working so much because his head was a convenient shape for sticking those motion-capture ping pong balls to, gives a very solid turn.

In the end it all goes together to make a film which does pack an emotional wallop and tackles some serious themes and material in a manner which never feels too heavy or laborious at all. I found myself at distinct risk of having an emotional reaction in the cinema, and judging from the amount of stifled sobbing and sniffling coming from the seats around me, other people had been affected even more powerfully. Not the best film of 2016, if you ask me, but if it does turn out to be the best one of 2017 that wouldn’t mean we’re not in for a good year. An extremely fine and moving piece of work with some profound emotional truths at its heart.

 

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You might be forgiven for thinking that yet another film about robotics and AI couldn’t help but feel a bit repetitive and over-familiar, following the plethora of movies on this topic. You might be forgiven for thinking that Neill Blomkamp’s particular kind of socially-conscious, photorealistic-VFX-driven SF movie might equally be starting to lose its novelty value, given both District 9 and Elysium stuck reasonably closely to the same formula. You might even be forgiven for thinking that the only kind of genre movie coming out at this time of year would be the least ambitious and inventive kind. But I think you would be wrong, because Blomkamp’s Chappie is none of these things.

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The story is set in a (very) near future South Africa, where a soaring crime rate has led to the introduction of robotic police auxiliaries, designed by idealistic young scientist Deon (Dev Patel) and produced by the company of Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) – all this is rather to the chagrin of ex-military designer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), whose own heavy-duty robot drones have been somewhat sidelined as a result.

However, Deon has higher aspirations than corporate profits, and is quietly working on a project to create true artificial intelligence. Bradley, needless to say, can’t see the benefit in a robot poet, or indeed any machine that can think for itself, and so Deon ends up having to install his AI in a junked chassis heading for the scrapheap.

Things get somewhat fraught as Deon and his project fall into the hands of a group of rather desperate gangsters looking for an edge against the robot police. A deal is struck where Deon is allowed to help educate the now-sentient droid, christened Chappie by his unlikely foster parents, in return for the gangsters being allowed to make use of it in an upcoming robbery. (Chappie is mo-capped and voiced by Blomkamp’s regular collaborator Sharlto Copley.) But Vincent has also got wind of what Deon is up to, and has spied an opportunity to strike a blow against the whole programme, giving his own machine an opportunity to shine…

As mentioned, there seem to have been a lot of films on this sort of topic lately – we had Ex Machina out only a few weeks ago, after all. And Chappie, on the face of it, a pretty derivative piece of work, an action thriller very reminiscent of any version of RoboCop you care to mention, to some extent retreading Blomkamp’s other films. I feel obliged to mention that Chappie has been the recipient of some rather mixed reviews, and I can sort of see why: the plotting is a little contrived in a number of places, and there’s a distinct sense of the director battling to keep all the various plot strands under control as the story continues. The film does have a very rough-around-the-edges feel, which is perhaps increased by the decision to cast rappers in a couple of pivotal roles – their characters are named after their stage personae, which is an admittedly very odd decision, but in the final analysis both Anri du Toit and Watkin Tudor Jones give quite effective and even moving performances. (This is just as well, as they are probably rather more prominent in the film than the ostensible ‘star names’ of Weaver and Jackman.)

That said, the most eye-catching contribution is from Copley and the special-effects team, who together manage to make Chappie a remarkably affecting and human character. They are helped by a script which manages to wring a considerable amount of poignancy and humour from the scenario – in the final analysis, this is still essentially an SF action movie (and the director handles the heavy-duty hardware-based crash-bang-wallop with casual aplomb), but there is a lot of droll comedy along the way, together with some surprisingly moving moments. (All of it is driven along by a great retro-synth soundtrack from Hans Zimmer.)

All this means that when the film touches upon deeper and more serious concerns, it’s as part of a story which already has you engrossed (if you’re anything like me, at least), rather than one which just functions as some sort of abstract and cerebral meditation on a particular theme. At one point a distraught Chappie asks Deon why he chose to create him with a body which will inevitably fail, leading to his cessation as a conscious being, and what’s previously been a sort of grimy roughneck action-comedy is suddenly considering humanity’s relationship with God and the nature of mortality, and the shift in perspective is both dizzying and exhilarating. There’s a touch of religion-bashing in the film, which is perhaps regrettably predictable, but set against this is the film’s general philosophy that it’s not your nature or your position in society that defines who you are, but the choices that you make: meeting and taking responsibility for Chappie leads to the redemption of a couple of characters who were initially unsympathetic scumbags, and this is convincingly done. The plot takes a sharp turn in the third act which perhaps strains credibility a bit, but not insuperably so.

In the end Chappie isn’t just another film about AI, but one about what it means to be human, which is surely a more profound question. That it does so with some skill and subtlety within the framework of an extremely accomplished action thriller is a pretty neat trick. In many ways Blomkamp’s adroit skipping between the different strands of drama, comedy, and action recalls District 9, and for me this is a more impressive film than Elysium, even if one wonders quite how long he can keep knocking out limitations on a relatively limited stylistic and narrative theme. But, of course, the release publicity for Chappie has been dominated by the news that Blomkamp and Weaver look set to work again on a new instalment in the Alien franchise: something which has a large number of people very excited indeed. I don’t know. Yet more Alien sequels interest me about as much as the threatened string of annual Star Wars cash-ins, and I’d much rather directors like Neill Blomkamp were working on their own original projects. Chappie is by no means perfect, but it is still a proper SF movie with a lot going for it – I wish we had many more films like this.

 

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It occurs to me that it is a little-commented-upon fact that Sigourney Weaver has carved out a rather good career for herself despite the fact she is, to some extent, typecast. By this I mean that I would be willing to bet a modest sum that, if I were to ask someone to name one of her movies, they would come out with something which featured somewhere along the SF/fantasy/horror axis – quite apart from the obvious, there’s Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, and Avatar. A couple of recent high-impact cameos in Paul and The Cabin in the Woods only adds to this impression. Weaver doesn’t seem bothered by it, but it does feel like a while since she’s had a properly meaty leading role in a movie.

Well, she sort of gets one in Rodrigo Cortes’ Red Lights, a thriller with paranormal elements which is currently doing the rounds. On paper, this is a film with a considerable amount going for it – but in the brave new world of 2012, films are made digitally, not on paper. Certainly, this week I had the choice of taking a gamble on seeing a movie which has had mixed reviews, or seeing the reissue of Jaws (a film I’ve already seen umpteen times, including once on the big screen for its twentieth anniversary back in 1995 – and, yes, that does make me feel terribly old). Now I ask myself – was it worth passing on Spielberg’s undoubted classic in favour of something new and possibly surprising? I can only answer ‘Mmmm, well…’

It’s not really fair to compare Red Lights to Jaws, anyway, as the films are really quite different. (The title Red Lights, should you be a-wonderin’, is only alluded to in passing in the film itself – but wondering about the title is only one of the many points for rumination you will be left with if you actually see it.) Sigourney Weaver plays Margaret Matheson, a psychologist who specialises in debunking paranormal phenomena of various kinds. In this she is assisted by her physicist sidekick Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), and – a newcomer to the team – research assistant Sally (Elizabeth Olsen, who’s showing signs of getting lodged in the horror-thriller ghetto herself). Decades of research have uncovered not one iota of evidence for the existence of supernatural forces.

However, the media is suddenly filled with news of the re-emergence of Simon Silver (Robert de Niro), a celebrity psychic from years gone by. (You can have fun spotting the references to the supposed real-life psychics that Silver appears to be based on – most obviously, Uri Geller, but also, for example, Ted Serios.) Tom is keen to investigate Silver, but Margaret is more cautious, knowing what a slippery and manipulative customer the man can be. Given his wealth and popularity with the public, it could be dangerous to expose him as a charlatan. The fact that it could be even more dangerous to antagonise him, should he truly have paranormal abilities, is left unspoken…

I have to say that my overriding reaction throughout the early sections of Red Lights consisted of that mildly inexplicable phenomenon, deja vu. I do seem to have watched a few of these paranormal thrillers over the years, and the fact they exist close to a very porous border with full-on horror movies doesn’t help much. I probably shouldn’t have been sitting there going ‘This bit’s like The Awakening… this bit’s like Mothman Prophecies… this part is a bit Sixth Sense…’ but unfortunately I was. Now, this is not to say that Red Lights is a bad movie because it feels derivative, but I do think it should perhaps have worked a bit harder to do something new and original with its premise. You know that this kind of film is going to open with a spooky event which the characters cheerily debunk, following which we will get to know them better and become party to the personal issues and tragedies which have led them to become involved in this particular area (no-one ever becomes a psychic researcher in movies just because they’re intellectually stimulated by psychic research, they’ve all had a sister abducted by aliens, or lost a loved one to a war and become obsessed with proving consciousness persists after death, or [spoilers deleted]). Less driven characters will openly question the value of their fixation, pointing out the very real sense of comfort people draw from visiting a medium or astrologer. Events will demand the protagonists reassess their materialistic world view. (As I said when reviewing The Awakening, the thing about ghost stories is that they do tend to have ghosts in them.) And so on, and so on.

Red Lights sticks to this pattern quite faithfully, but – despite not having anything new to add – manages to do so with intelligence and gravitas. It doesn’t look or sound sensationalistic and it’s aided considerably by the performances of Weaver and Murphy, both of whom are reliably watchable and continue to be so here. Elizabeth Olsen, alas, doesn’t really get the material she deserves. On the other hand, de Niro does not take an axe to his own reputation with the vigour he’s shown in other recent movies, but nevertheless there is little here to mark him out as an especially noteworthy performer. This whole opening section is psychologically thoughtful and contains a lot of interesting nuts-and-bolts detail about psychic research, which I found rather absorbing to watch despite the tone of the thing being so familiar.

Then, about halfway through, an Unfortunate Event occurs and the film goes into a bit of a tizzy. It becomes much more of a supernatural thriller as the protagonists attempt to figure out if Silver really does have special gifts, and if he’s using them in an inappropriately malevolent fashion. It all gets a bit overwrought, if you ask me, with quite a heavy reliance on ‘jump’ scares and explicit weirdness. The plot unravels into a series of strange events and the characters’ reactions to them, and it becomes much more Murphy’s movie. While he’s as good as ever, I did miss Weaver and Olsen.

And, subliminally, one gets an irresistible sense of a Twist Ending heading one’s way. (It may be that even revealing that Red Lights has a Twist Ending counts as a spoiler, but given that comparisons between it and The Sixth Sense are plastered all over the publicity, I don’t think I can really be held responsible.) Well, as twists go, the one in Red Lights is about a B- : it doesn’t feel like something completely new and unexpected that’s been shoehorned in just to pep up the finale, having been carefully seeded throughout the movie, but on the other hand neither did I go ‘What a brilliant idea! How stupid I was not to have figured it out!’, which is the mark of something special. To be honest I was more relieved than anything else when the twist was revealed, because up to that point the film was showing severe signs of not knowing how to finish and collapsing into an incoherent mess. The twist just about holds the main plot together, but doesn’t help with lots of other irksome little questions and story points the film never really gets back to.

A strong cast, mostly working well, and a sober and thoughtful atmosphere are the main things that Red Lights has to commend it. It doesn’t really do anything new, and certainly doesn’t appear to have anything interesting or really original to say on the subject of why people believe or disbelieve in paranormal phenomena. The story doesn’t completely hang together – lots of major and minor events basically go unexplained as the closing credits roll – but it passes the time reasonably enough. A fairly average movie, but that’s the fault of the script rather than the cast.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 28th 2002:

[Originally following a review of Godzilla vs The Smog Monster.]

Well, what are the odds? You wait weeks without a single monster movie getting a mention and then suddenly two come along at once. Yup, let’s look at James Cameron’s 1986 classic, Aliens.

Looking back at Cameron’s filmography as a director, it’s clear that originality is not the man’s strong point. It’s a collection of reworkings of other people’s material (The Terminator, True Lies) and sequels (Piranha 2: Flying Killers, Terminator 2, the film in question) and, of course, based-on-fact disaster movies. The sole exception to this is The Abyss, which I’ve always found to be his weakest movie for a major studio. [Anyone heading for the comments section framing a remark featuring the word Avatar, don’t bother. – A]

But anything he lacks in terms of inventiveness he makes up for in his ability to deliver a high-octane head-banging action movie, and that’s exactly what Aliens is. 57 years after the events of the original film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her cat Jones (a cat) are rescued from their deep-space deep-freeze. Her employers refuse to believe her story concerning the fate of the Nostromo… until contact is lost with an outpost on the planet they originally found the alien creature. Along with an amoral company executive (Paul Reiser) and a squad of marines (Cameron regulars Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn and Jenette Goldstein amongst them), Ripley sets out for the remote colony, where nastiness inevitably ensues…

I think Aliens is a better film than its predecessor for one simple reason – James Cameron may not have Ridley Scott’s unique visual flair, but he has an instinctive grasp of storytelling, and he knows that a great action film is all about tension, characterisation, and ultimately delivering the thrills. There are no pointless 2001 homages in Aliens (well, maybe there’s one right at the start), nary a wasted shot or redundant line. There’s suspense in bucketloads (largely achieved by simply not featuring the monsters until nearly halfway through the film), and a small cast of readily identifiable, if not always likeable, characters (with the exception of Reiser’s wretched yuppie-scum). And of course, the climax of the film has the remarkable, iconic Alien Queen as its killer punch – though this isn’t to dismiss the other superb set-pieces (my favourite is the escape through the ducting culminating in Vasquez and Gorman’s trick with the grenades).

Cameron knows how to make a great sequel, too: virtually all the elements of the original film reappear, but his approach to them is sufficiently different to keep them fresh and engaging. The one real change is quite subtle – where Alien was on a deep level a psychological horror story about rape, Aliens – for all its testosterone-fuelled frenzy – is about the alarming power of the maternal instinct. But it still manages to make the original film look like nothing more than a low-key prologue, and at the same time sets an impossibly high standard for the subsequent films in the series.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 29th 2001:

A long time ago (well, the late 1970s), in a galaxy not that far away, the film studio 20th Century Fox had had a big hit with a movie called Star Wars (you may have heard of it). The Fox suits decided they could use a bit more of this spaceship stuff, seeing as it was so popular, and rang round the junior suits who did all the work. ‘Any scripts with spaceships in them knocking about?’ And they were brought the script for Battlestar Galactica, which they promptly sent away again, because even suits have standards. Finally a script called Star Beast appeared, which even sounded a bit like Star Wars, and they decided to make it as a sort of low-budget exploitation film. Unfortunately they forgot to tell this to Mr Ridley Scott, the director, with peculiar results…

Surely everyone reading this knows the plot of Alien, the movie Star Beast turned into? All right, just in brief… Most of the movie occurs on the Nostromo, an interstellar tug with a crew of seven (plus one pet cat – all great horror movies should have animals in them). The crew spend most of the time asleep in fridges, which makes you wonder why they’re there at all, especially as the plot establishes that a sophisticated android workforce is available. However, they’re rudely awakened by an alien signal emanating from a blasted rockball, and their contracts insist they go and investigate. Down on the planet three of the crew find a huge alien vessel and luckless First Officer Kane (a fairly pre-stardom John Hurt) has a close encounter of an intimate and rather icky kind with the occupant of an alien egg. Despite the concerns of Third Officer Ripley (a definitely pre-stardom Sigourney Weaver, here in her signature role), the landing party are let back on board by twitchy Science Officer Ash (a pre-Baggins Ian Holm). The alien parasite seems to die and Kane recovers. However the ship’s supply of indigestion tablets is insufficient to stop him rudely bursting open in the middle of the crew’s supper, and a metallic-dentured alien emerges and does a runner (or the equivalent) for the bowels of the ship. The rest of the crew are forced to engage in a battle to survive, or else the franchise will never get going and The Terminator will never have any competition for the title of James Cameron’s best film…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Fox may have wanted another Star Wars, but this ain’t it. It’s a weird clash of several different styles of film-making, and arguably the wrong style wins. I’ve never been able to force myself to believe all the hype about Alien, and here’s why…

Style number one is indeed Star Wars influenced: there are frequent loving flybys of bloomin’ big spaceships, and the technology of the Nostromo has a dirty, used look to it, rather like the Millenium Falcon et al. It looks sort of convincing as a working starship. This flows rather neatly into style number two – a naturalistic, almost docudrama approach to the crew mooching about, all talking at the same time over their meals, and complaining about their pay. It’s an effect that reminds me most strongly of a Howard Hawks movie. Hawks was a director and producer of many genres, active from the 1930s to the 50s, and amongst his films was the original Thing From Another World. The Thing was one of the best 50s SF scare movies, and clearly an ancestor of Alien, right down to the traitor in the human camp. Alien was conceived of and pitched as an updated scare movie, a suspense-thriller-horror movie – the haunted house in space.

But the most important name for the Alien saga at this point in time was not Ripley but Ridley – Scott, that is, the director. Here I go into a minority of one, but I’ve never been hugely impressed by a Ridley Scott film. His visual sense is undeniably superb, and his movies are nearly all stunningly beautiful to look at. But it always seems to me that he’s much more interested in filling the screen with pretty pictures than with engaging the audience with the characters or even telling the story.

The next time you see Alien just look at how much of the time is filled with languid sequences where the camera roams around actionless, silent sets, simply showing off how beautiful the production designs are. This drains the film of a lot of the nervous energy it should have, particularly as a suspense horror. Sure, there are ‘jump’ moments, such as when the facehugger falls on Ripley’s shoulder or the Alien appears with Dallas in the air duct – but anyone can contrive that sort of thing. Creating and sustaining true tension is much more difficult and, for me, Alien rarely manages it for long – I just don’t feel drawn into the story.

This isn’t a bad film – of course it isn’t. HR Giger’s creations are incredible and iconic, the rest of the sets equally good. There’s a good ensemble performance by the cast, and it’s interesting that it isn’t until very late on that Ripley emerges as the survivor/heroine figure. Also noteworthy is Ian Holm’s peculiar, nervy performance as Ash – a performance that seems even more peculiar on repeated viewings of the movie.

But for me, Alien is fatally flawed: written and designed as a nerve-jangling horror movie in space, it’s actually directed like an arthouse film, with beautiful compositions and visual effects taking precedence over effective storytelling. The very beauty which makes it so exceptional also deprives it of truly working as it was intended to.

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