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Wait – Which Alien Movie Are You In?

June 28, 2012 Leave a comment

by JJ McCabe

Seems like I can’t go a single day in the last couple of weeks without engaging in, or overhearing, a heated argument about the merits (or lack thereof) of the new Ridley Scott Alien prequel, Prometheus. Whichever side of this polarizing film you land on (I liked it,) it is indisputably a bit of a confused mess at times. There is a point about two-thirds of the way through the film where two major characters bump into each other after fighting two very different but equally harrowing battles, and after a brief conversation (in which they do not bother to apprise each other of the rapidly worsening conditions surrounding them,) head on their separate ways, never to meet again. It was at this point that it occurred to me that I was watching a film where two of the leads were in completely different stories, and that that was patently ridiculous.      

This is, however, par for the course for the Alien franchise. The third installment of the series was a breathtaking collage of multiple screenwriters, directors, and studio meddling pushing forth an unfinished, incoherent but still fascinating mess like so many Xenomorph embryos bursting forth from a living human torso.

Alien 3 was originally drafted by the godfather of cyberpunk William Gibson, and was in many ways the complete opposite of what the film ended up being. Many of you have likely tried to forget Alien 3 or perhaps skipped it over entirely, so I’ll briefly summarize: The second film of the franchise, Aliens, is 137 minutes of watching Ripley brave unimaginable feats of physical and psychological strength to overcome the most ruthless and competent predator ever encountered by mankind to save the life of young Newt (sole survivor of a massacre and emotional surrogate for Ripley’s own daughter lost to the quantum distortions of decades spent in stasis during deep space flight) and romantic interest (to the extent that “romance” exists in a James Cameron film) Hicks. In the opening minutes of Alien 3 – picking up immediately after Aliens ends – the escape pod crashes and Hicks and Newt are unceremoniously killed off. In the six years between Aliens and Alien 3, one could be forgiven for not remembering how important Ripley’s relationship to Hicks and Newt were to the film (I know my most lasting impressions of Aliens were “Flamethrowers!” – I was nine or ten years old when I first saw it,) but try sitting down and watching the two films back to back and it’s a hell of a sucker-punch. Awakening demoralized and exhausted on a men’s prison planet to find her ersatz family dead, Ripley sleepwalks her way through a tepid liaison with prison doctor Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones,) attempted rape by prison inmates, futile attempts to prevent another xenomorph from picking off another crew of grizzled future-men one by one, and her own eventual alien impregnation and death. The final scene of her plunge into the furnace as the alien attempts to burst from her abdomen is one of the most complex and gripping images of the entire series, a perverse Madonna and Child, fiercely holding the escaping worm to her breast to keep it from doing its terrible work on the galaxy, but also as a companion that has been with Ripley so long she can no longer remember a life without it’s slimy, toothy presence.

In Gibson’s original draft however, it was Ripley who was sidelined early in the film and Hicks who took the spotlight. Ripley enters a coma early in the film, and the action takes place in the space station/floating city of a radical separatist group. As opposed to one alien, Gibson conceived of an infection of sorts that echoes John Carpenter’s 1986 film The Thing. Reportedly, the gestation of this new, Ripley-free take was due to Sigourney Weaver being uninterested in reprising her role. After Gibson departed the project, Eric Red (writer of the Katherine Bigelow vampire film Near Dark) took a pass at the script.  Those old enough to remember seeing the early teasers for Alien may remember that the only information given was that the Xenomorphs would be invading earth – a promise that to this day has not been fulfilled in the 3 films since. This trailer was most likely conceived from the Eric Red script, which took place in an enclosed bio-dome on earth, and again excises Ripley from the action.

The Prison Colony concept wasn’t introduced until the third writer David Twohy (writer/director of the Chronicles of Riddick series) stepped in. Twohy also introduced a few ideas which would actually be implemented in the fourth Alien film, such as the deformed Alien clones, the half-human “newborn,” and the idea of being sucked through a small hull or window breach as a method of death.

Then a Fox producer decided at the last minute that he had to have Sigourney Weaver back. So they threw $5 million at her, and brought in Victor Ward, the New Zealand filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed film “The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.” He essentially started from scratch, and conceived of Ripley’s escape pod crashing into a all-male monastery, where Ripley is locked away to keep the brothers safe from their own impure thoughts, while the Xenomorph runs amok helping itself to a monastic buffet.

Finally, due to a budget that had already spent close to $7 million in pre-production and was rapidly approaching a scheduled release date, the producers seem to have more or less taken ideas from all four scripts and chucked them in a hat, pulling the pages for each day’s filming as needed. At $160 million, the film cost more than the previous two Alien films combined. Today it’s most remembered for being the first film of David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club, Se7en etc).

So for those who complain about Prometheus’ strange meandering diversions, I highly recommend revisiting this intermittently brilliant disaster of a film. It’s the work of no less than five genius creative filmmakers, each with a unique vision, and the final product is…  well, what’s the opposite of something that’s the sum of its parts?

Oh, and Alien Resurrection was originally written by Joss Whedon. But then, that kind of thing used to happen to him a lot.

Entertaining Podcasts About Entertainment

May 22, 2012 Leave a comment

by JJ McCabe

1. Doug Loves Movies
Stoned “Professional Humoredian” Doug Benson takes advantage of his
decades of work in stand-up, TV and film to invite hilarious and
interesting people from those worlds (mostly other comedians, but
occasionally film luminaries like John Lithgow and Leonard Maltin
himself) to join him in front of live audiences and discuss movies as
well as play games like “The Leonard Maltin Game” and “Build a Title.”
The games have a disjointed arbitrary breeziness to them similar to
the scoring in “Who’s Line is it Anyways?” but though the competition
can be spirited, the overall feeling is of a very talented and funny
group of friends hanging out over beers B.S.-ing about flicks

Recommended listening:
Ep. 34 – Jon Hamm, Paul F. Tompkins, semi-final rounds Tournament of Champions

That’s right, Don Draper himself. Hamm is a semi-regular guest on the
show, and he acquits himself nicely with laid-back charm and a sharp
wit. Paul F. Tompkins is one of the best stand-up performers around,
and he’s actually one of the best contestants, consistently making it
to the finals each year.

2. How Did This Get Made
Paul Scheer Jason Mantzoukas, and June Diane Raphael (all from Human
Giant and many other very funny t.v. shows) get together and watch
cinematic catastrophes ranging from the sublimely insane (Crank 2,
Punisher Warzone,) to the completely unwatchable (88 minutes,
Tiptoes,) and riff on them. Not quite an MST-3k knock off, the show
is at its best when the hosts have a clear affection for the films and
try to get a sense of how they ended up going so off the rails.

Recommended listening:
Episode 20: Punisher Warzone

The hosts have had guests from the cinematic abominations on the show
to defend their work in the past, from a brief post-script interview
with Brian Taylor of Neveldine-Taylor on the film “Crank 2” to a live
screening of “Birdemic” with Weird Al and star Whitney Moore, but this
is the first episode to have the film’s director for the entire
episode. Lexi Alexander makes a compelling argument that the very
elements that made her film such a failure are the ones that make it
so true to the source material, and that the critical back-lash
stemmed largely from a poorly timed release date, and studio meddling
with the score that skewed the darkly comic tone intended. I remember
seeing the film when it came out and finding it unwatchable, but after
listening to this episode went back and re-watched the movie and quite
enjoyed it. Though not every episode intends to save reputations, the
few gems like this set How Did This Get Made apart from other more
mean-spirited critical snarkfests.

3. Boars Gore and Swords
Think of yourself as a nerd ‘cuz you own the Firefly box set and have
a Zelda tattoo? Ivan Hernandez and Red Scott are two San Francisco
stand-up comedians that co-host a podcast devoted to the epic fantasy
book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the “Game of Thrones”
television series, and in their commentary draw on a vast cultural
well of breathtakingly nerdy references, from deep cuts of the Marvel
and D.C. universes to retro videogames, Simpsons references, D&D, and
power metal. The material is strictly for nerds, by nerds as well
befits the subject matter, but for any among you who can recite the
house words of the Iron Born, the show is hiiii-larious.

Recommended listening:
2×05: The Ghost of Guy Branum

Yes, at over 2 hours in length this is by far the longest episode of
the show, but arguably one of the best. Guy Branum (of X-Play) has
some very fascinating insights into the thematic elements that make
the Song of Ice and Fire series so compelling, and his dry wit and
sassy tone keeps the comparatively goofy hosts on their toes.

4. Requiem Metal Podcast
Host Mark Rudolph was the co-creator and editor of the Requiem &
Eclipse metal zines back in the late ‘80s and early 90’s, and his
co-host Jason Hundley is a high-school history teacher. The quiet,
distinctly mid-western, scholarly angle of the show may seem at odds
with the music – underground death, black and thrash metal with a
particular emphasis on early Swedish death and death-doom – but for
any younger fans of metal or those who may have missed out on some
seminal early band’s catalogs, it’s a terrific resource. With several
two and three part episodes covering the work of bands like Death,
Carcass, Slayer, Emperor etc. and the absolutely essential “Crucial
Years of Heavy Metal,” the podcast archive is a masters class in all
things extreme, from a couple of guys who were there from the
beginning and in some cases had opportunities to interview some of the
titans of the underground back when the only way to hear the music
here in the states was through tape-trading networks and ‘zines. Add
in the yearly round-ups of the best in new releases as well as the
occasional episode devoted to newer bands, and the podcast provides an
ongoing education in brutality.

Recommended Listening:
Death: parts 1,2,3

The earliest and most influential of the Tampa Bay death metal scene,
this extremely comprehensive analysis of the entire discography is
full of interesting behind the scenes tidbits and – more importantly –
some great cuts by one of the most important American metal bands of
all time.

5. Indoor Kids
Stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon get
together with other comedians, video-game journalists, developers, and
other interesting people to discuss video games. Topics range from
the heady and abstract such as a lengthy and fascinating discussion on
whether or not games can be art, and the differences in narrative
between games and film, to nostalgic remembrances of seedy video
arcades from childhood.

Recommended listening:
Church of Skyrim Part 2 (with Dan Harmon)
Dan Harmon, creator and show runner of beloved cult t.v. show
“Community,” stopped by in mid-December when the video game world as a
whole was still transfixed by the ground-breaking rpg “Skyrim.” In
typical Indoor Kids fashion, the levity of these talented comedians is
tempered with some fascinating explorations of the mind-bending new
form of narrative created when a virtual world has been entirely
populated by npc’s that live their own lives independent of the
player. Many of the themes discussed in another excellent episode
“Are Video Games Art? (With Film Critic Hulk) are touched on here but
in a less academic, more illustrative manner.

5 Actors with Real Musical Chops

May 10, 2012 Leave a comment

by JJ McCabe

In honor of John C. Reilly’s recent performance at Moe’s Alley, I set out to write a snarky critique of the arrogance of Hollywood’s A-listers indulging themselves in rock star fantasies – Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Willis, J-Lo, Jaime Foxx etc. But as I sat at my laptop and fired up Reilly’s first Jack White-produced single, “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” I felt the vitriol leach away – the song is good, damn him! Equal part Stanley Brothers and White Stripes, the song has a vitality that elevates it from movie star with a famous musician buddy over-produced karaoke status. And watching the youtube video of him and Tom Brosseau performing a cappella at the tiny Echo in L.A., you can clearly see that these songs and tour are a real labor of love. So in honor of Reilly I scrapped my original idea and thought I’d remind or introduce y’all to a few other actors with real musical chops – the kind you might just be willing to listen to completely on their own merits.

1. Ryan Gosling – Dead Man’s Bone
Dead Man’s Bones is a soundtrack for a spooky horror musical that was never produced, a paean to things that go bump in the night conceived by Gosling and friend Zach Shields. The two played all instruments, including those that they had no prior knowledge of, allowed themselves only three takes of each track, and recorded and toured with a childrens choir. The album is haunting, hilarious, raw, joyful, and terrifying. It reminds me a good deal of the Spike Jones “Where the Wild Things Are.”

2. Crispin Glover
If you know the bizarre character actor used to great effect by David Lynch, star of Willard, and hair sniffing silent villain of the second Charlie’s Angels film, you probably won’t be surprised that his music has a low-rent electro circus weirdness that blurs the line between Lynch and Tim and Eric. “Clownly Clown Clown” may be the best song ever to bring a party to a confused and enthralled standstill at three in the morning.

3. Vincent Gallo
Reminiscent of early Cat Power and the genesis of the freak folk movement, the auteur behind “Buffalo ’66” and “The Brown Bunny” writes and performs subdued jazz nuanced indie folk songs that – while lacking the shaky intensity of his films – are compellingly strange enough to be experienced as an extension of his filmography.

4. Steve Martin
Martin was studying the five string banjo before his comedy career got off the ground, and it’s made sporadic appearances over the course of his career, so those shaking their heads in confusion over the new direction his work has taken (i.e. no more unnecessary and embarrassing remakes of classic Peter Sellers films) need to reach back a bit into his live stand-up archives. His authentic Appalachian-style three finger rolling bluegrass work with the Steep Canyon Rangers is the culmination of a lifetime of plucking.

5. William Shatner (with the Ben Folds 5)
Okay, yeah – not exactly the indie auteur or skilled player that the rest of this list would merit. And yes, any awesomeness that Shatner has recorded in the music world should probably afford full credit to Ben Folds. After all, the whole reason Shatner entered the indie rock icon phase of his career was because of his daughter’s love for Ben Folds 5 (that story may be apocryphal, but I find it entertaining enough to believe.) “Has Been” has a real charm though, from the oddly affecting ennui he brings to Pulp’s “Common People” to the genuinely creepy stalker-ballad “In Love,” Shatner embraces his comic persona and poorly received previous musical outings so thoroughly that it becomes trite to attempt to mock them, and one is instead left with just accepting a really freaking bizarre, catchy, confessional pop record. Much like Eminem’s B-Rabbit in “8-Mile,” Shatner is so willing to air all of his dirty laundry in his signature beat-poet spoken cadence that he leaves no ammunition for potential detractors – fitting, as he would later perform “I’m the Real Slim Shady” for an episode of Futurama. Plus the album is loaded with ringers – what was the last pop record you heard that boasted performances by Aimee Mann, Jarvis Cocker, and Henry Rollins?

Metal Round-Up

May 3, 2012 Leave a comment

A semi-regular (i.e. whenever we get around to it) overview of new(ish) metal releases. \m/

by JJ McCabe

Over Kill – The Electric Age
For their 16th studio album, the veteran New Jersey thrash quartet has unleashed a lean, vintage thrash record that could have been recorded in ’86 if the production didn’t sound so good. The drums are tight and punchy and the guitars thick and shredding, and surprisingly the bass is very prominent with a trebly lead tone more reminiscent of Flea than your average metal bass player. Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth’s Halford-esque vocals are starting to show his age a bit, but considering he’s been at it for 32 years, he sounds better than he has any right to.

3 Inches of Blood – Long Live Heavy Metal
With song titles like “Metal Woman,” “Leather Lord,” and “Die for Gold,” 3 Inches of Blood has given up on knowingly winking at some of the inherent humor in power metal and has instead made a full-blown parody album. If you’re looking for an epic laugh, pick up the new Tenacious D in a couple of weeks, and if you want to bang your head to some gloriously silly high-pitched wailing about trolls and stormy seas, pick up some old Blind Guardian records. Either way, I’d give this one a pass.

Meshuggah – Koloss
Whenever I hear Meshuggah, I like to imagine kids trying to mosh at their live show, and then I giggle a bit. The polarizing group is the Godfather of “djent,” and whether you love or hate them, Koloss probably won’t change your mind either way, as it’s more off-kilter odd time-signature groove prog heaviness with Jens Kidman’s guttural hollers. Not as strange and complex as Catch-33 or Obzen, this album finds them focusing more on the groove elements, resulting in an album that’s probably much more accessible (read: commercial) but may turn off some more “extreme” metal fans.

Bonus: YouTube video of dancing at a Meshuggah show

Naglfar – Teras
Don’t let the epic opening with the buried chanting fool you into thinking you accidentally picked up a tankard-swinging Viking metal record – this is modern Swedish black metal, kind of reminiscent of Watain’s most recent output. Melodic, but lacking the theatricality (or lame keyboards) of your Dimmu Borgirs, this is a pretty fun, grim, mid-tempo black metal album. The clean, high production and hard rock tempos make it accessible to black metal beginners, and I appreciate the blast beats and harsh vocals.

Asphyx – Death Hammer
Another band that’s been kicking around for quite a while and is approaching metal with a “If it ain’t broke…” attitude, Death Hammer sounds like it could have been written at the same time as the seminal “The Rack” album, though the production is noticeably better. Martin Van Drunen’s distinct howl (sounds to me like a Norwegian Obituary) is in place, as are the shifts between crushing death-doom (“Minefield”) and blistering thrash fury (the title track). In a year that has seen bands like Disma and Vallenfyre successfully rediscover old-school Swedish death metal sounds, it’s exciting to see bands like Unleashed and Asphyx releasing new records that embrace their roots.

Acephalix – Deathless Master
I love Amebix, and I love poorly recorded, murky, filthy death metal from the early 90’s, especially the sludgy doom-laced variety practiced by bands like Grave, Paradise Lost, and Unleashed. So not to be narcissistic, but it feels like the metal gods have gifted me personally with the filthy crust-doom brutality that is Acephalix. Real meat and potatoes death metal that sounds like it was recorded on a reel-to-reel live in a friend’s basement minutes before ritually sacrificing a virgin to the mindless Other Gods. And even better – they’re from San Francisco, typically home to melancholy and experimental (though often excellent) hipster black metal, so it’s even more surprising to discover such a Beast running loose just miles from the epicenter of the Summer of Love. My favorite new death metal band.