Category: 1979


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I’m going to posit a fairly unpopular opinion right now, but it’s one that I’ve held for a long time now (and my most current viewing of the film didn’t dispossess me of this belief), the original 1979 Alien is one of the more over-rated science fiction films of all time. It is generally held up as one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, and if that’s true, sci-fi horror must be a sadly dull genre of cinema. Even now, 34 years later, it’s clear that Alien was a crowning technical achievement. And much like Black Rain and Black Hawk Down, it should be obvious to everyone that Ridley Scott is a masterful director with a keen visual eye. Sadly, the pacing in Alien is downright tedious at times and the film never frightened me once. Through in the fact that, outside of Ripley and the character played by Yaphet Kotto, I didn’t care about any of the characters in the film, Alien is a sadly stale if exceptionally technically well made sci-fi horror.

Alien is considered to be one of the premier films of the “less is more” philosophy of horror film-making. And I am a huge supporter of that genre. The original Paranormal Activity crafted a genuine modern horror classic on that principle, and Roman Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion is also from the same vein. But those films succeed where Alien often fails with an understanding of how to fill the scenes in between the horror. Paranormal Activity had the great banter between Micah and Katie and Repulsion had its omnipresent social commentary on the dangers of sexual repression. Alien has its plot and practically nothing else besides its admittedly suffocating atmosphere. If Alien had found a way to breathe life to the characters portrayed by its star-studded cast, it might have been a great film. As it is, Alien simply is not.

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In the future, the commercial towing ship Nostromo holds 7 passengers (plus a cat) as it returns to Earth after a successful mining operation. However, before the ship can reach Earth, the crew is prematurely awakened from its cryogenic stasis when they intercept an emergency distress beacon on a remote planet. An away team consisting of the ship’s two commanding officers, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt), as well as the navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), heads down to the planet’s surface to investigate the distress beacon where they find a crashed, derelict space craft with nothing left alive on board. Or so they think. Kane finds an egg in one of the ship’s chambers and a mysterious alien life form attaches itself to his face, even breaking through his helmet, creating a parasitic attachment to Kane’s head. When the chief science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), breaks quarantine rules and let’s the away team back on the ship, the whole crew’s lives is put in danger.

It is quickly apparent once the away team returns that the alien attached to Kane’s face is very dangerous. Warrant officer Ripley (The Village‘s Sigourney Weaver) is angry enough that they let the alien on the ship in the first place, and the engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) aren’t too pleased about it either. No one knows what the alien is or why it’s attached itself to Kane’s face, but there’s a ray of hope when the alien seemingly disappears. Kane seems to be alright until an infamous dinner sequence where an evolved version of the alien bursts forth from his chest. And from that point forward, it’s a race against time to either kill the alien or be killed as it evolves and starts to take more and more of the ship’s crew down with it.

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I’ll give Alien credit for the things it does astoundingly well. As I’ve said, this movie is 34 years old now. Other than a hilariously 1970s/1980s idea of what computers will look like in the future (apparently they all still run on DOS), the special effects and general feel of Alien has aged remarkably well. There were only a couple occasions where I thought the effects looked laughably aged (an explosion at the very end of the film being the most prominent one), and like the original Star Wars films, Alien is a film you could show to today’s kids and they wouldn’t laugh at its look. And, beyond the effects, Ridley Scott makes the atmosphere and look of the ship absolutely suffocating and dripping with dread (even if nothing especially scary ever happens). The lighting and camerawork of the movie are superb, and I just wish it’d had a better script supporting it.

The film is also chock full of some of the best character actors of the 1970s and is the film that shot Sigourney Weaver to stardom. And the performances are great. While the characterizations of the people aboard the ship are paper-thin, the actors have a strong chemistry, and the animosity between Ash and Ripley is so strong that one almost wonders if they disliked each other in real life. They legitimately gave the impression that they simply couldn’t stand to be around one another. Sigourney Weaver helped to encapsulate one of the ultimate female bad-asses in movie history, and her turn as Ripley is one of the great parts of the film, although I loved the consistently scheming and disapponted Parker played by Yaphet Kotto. Parker and Ripley were the only two characters in the film that seemed to have any bite to them.

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I’ll draw this review to a close. I hope you can tell that I don’t dislike Alien. It is an inarguably well-crafted film, and it helped bring Ridley Scott’s talents to mainstream prominence. Unfortunately, it’s script is simply alright, and it doesn’t do justice to Scott’s artistic vision and talent. Black Rain is one of the least remembered/discussed of Ridley Scott’s films, but I honestly think it’s better than Alien. It is smart and stylish from beginning to end, and though it’s not some shining example of cinematic art, it always remains fun. Alien wants to be cinematic art, but it isn’t good enough to pull it off. I think everyone should watch Alien. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s required sci-fi horror viewing 101; I just don’t think it’s the timeless classic that everyone else does.

Final Score: B

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Ever since I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in middle school, I’ve always had a serious soft spot for new wave music. I don’t know what it is, but you can probably trace my love of modern electric and indie dance pop straight to its 1980s/late 1970s forefathers. And few bands electrified the New Wave community as much as Blondie. Probably thanks to lead singer Debbie Harry’s ravishing good looks, Blondie was one of the kings of the New Wave scene. One of my friends/coworkers has an absolutely massive vinyl record collection and he had a bunch of records that he wanted to get rid of. So he let a friend and I dig through him and give him a couple bucks for each of the ones that we wanted. I found some good stuff although a lot of what I grabbed also speaks to my love of cheesy 1970s pop-rock like Foreigner (don’t judge me fool). One of the records I took though was Blondie’s 1978 seminal classic Parallel Lines and it features my favorite Blondie tune, “Heart of Glass.” Enjoy.

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Back to my vinyl collection. Since I consider it to be one of the ten greatest albums ever made, it should be no surprise that when I made my initial frenzy of vinyl collecting that I bought the seminal classic London Calling by The Clash. It’s not just the greatest punk album ever recorded; it’s one of the greatest records of all time. (kanye style voice) OF ALL TIME! The title track is also one of my favorite songs ever written, and I want to save it for a special occasion. So, I figured I’d use the other big single off the record, “Train in Vain.” Man, what I wouldn’t give to be able to go back in time and see these guys when they were still together and Joe Strummer was still together. If I even have to explain why they’re “the only band that matters,” then we aren’t even beginning to speak the same musical vocabulary. Enjoy.

 

On the list of weird British bands that you’ve likely never heard of, XTC has to be one of the better. It was a couple of years ago and my very hip cousin suggested that I check them out. I’m not sure what the impetus of the conversation was (but I’m assuming it had something to do with my recent discover of the Shins [which XTC sounds nothing like] and my love of New Wave/art rock), and the second that I heard their single, “Dear God,” I was hooked. They’ve got a bunch of great albums, and their record, Skylarking, is one of the better albums of the 80s. Nonsuch was pretty awesome for the 90s as well (cause it has the very cool “Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”). XTC made music for a long time and the first single that brought them any attention (moreso in their native England than here in the States) was the proto-New Wave track “Making Plans for Nigel.” It actually caused a minor controversy in England at the time because of the jab it took at the nationalized British Steel. I just think it’s a great example of XTC’s signature quirky song-writing along with their great ear for hooks.

If you haven’t checked out my reviews of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you should probably know that I’m a big fan of the hippie culture (even if Hunter S. Thompson was exploring why hippie culture essentially went out of existence) and the acid subculture that grew out of the late 1960’s. Also the fact that I’ve reviewed every single episode of Glee should be a clue that I love musicals. So, I’ve known about the existence of Hair, the classic counter-culture musical from the 1960’s celebrating the hippie lifestyle and the peace movement, pretty much my entire life. I also knew that there was a movie made in the late ’70s that was a very loose adaptation of the stage play directed by Milos Forman (Amadeus). Well, as luck would have it, the film version of Hair was the next movie in my instant queue for Netflix. While it’s far from the best musical I’ve ever watched, it still had an awesome soundtrack and was a surprisingly tragic mix of comedy and drama, and for fans of fun movie musicals, Hair might run a little long, but it’s worth your time.

 

Set at the height of the Vietnam War, Hair is about a group of hippies living in Central Park led by the charismatic Berger (Treat Williams) and their newest friend, Claude Butowski (Carnivale‘s John Savage). Claude is an innocent and naive Okie (that may or may not be from Muskogie [yuk yuk yuk]) who has come to New York for a three day stay before being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. As Claude befriends these hippies and experiments with drugs for the first time, he learns that there’s more to life than the straight and narrow conventional American life he had been living. In the park, Claude also meets Sheila (National Lampoon‘s Beverly D’Angelo), a society debutante who is also struggling with her place in society. After the fun in NY ends, Claude is still forced to ship off to Nevada for basic training. The hippies plan one final trip down to Nevada to say goodbye to their new friend, but when tragedy strikes, they have to learn that the darkness infesting our society in the 60’s can hit everyone even if you try to isolate yourself from it.

A musical is defined by its songs, and Hair has fantastic performances in Spades. “Age of Aquarius” is a classic hit (and remains my favorite section of 40 Year Old Virgin). The title track is another single that has stood the test of time, as well as “Easy to Be Hard” which I seem to remember from one of my dad’s CD’s but I can’t remember each one. I think Three Dog Night covered it, but it may have been someone else on the Once Upon a Song ballad CD he had (great compilation album btw). Not every song is a homerun, but there are so many (and they almost all fit in the rock/soul opera vein) that you don’t care when one song drags on a little too long or isn’t as instantly singable as “Age of Aquarius”. The main cast all have great voices and Treat Williams was a real find as Berger. The costume work on the film was also phenomenal as you really felt like you were looking at authentic wear from the hippie era. I want to dress like that in real life.

The movie overstays its welcome at times, and there are definitely moments when it is just a little too silly for its own good (the acid trip sequence seems like it was written by someone who had never actually done acid) but hey, it’s a movie about hippies. It’s supposed to be a little out there. Even with all of its flaws, it still manages to capture the peace and love of the era while showing the darker realities that were just waiting to explode beneath the surface. If you like hippies or musicals, Hair is a delicious trip back into a more innocent era with some messages that remain relevant in today’s day and age. While much of what the hippies believed in seems fairly silly in retrospect, their appreciation of love and the common humanity that binds us together means that there still plenty of valuable lessons we can gleam from their bohemian lifestyles.

Final Score: B+

Musicals are my ultimate guilty pleasure. Often threadbare plots are orchestrated around giving people the opportunity to sing and dance in often illogical and unrealistic fashion, but I eat it up like it’s going out of style. A lot of this (and so much of my personality) can be attributed to the fact that one of the first movies I can remember watching was Grease, and it’s soundtrack was also one of the first albums I can remember owning (along with Savage Garden’s self-titled LP). The sheer theatricality and enthusiasm of the productions more often than not makes up for stories that don’t particularly work and musical numbers that make no sense in the context of the film’s universe. However, for every musical I love, there are so many I can’t stand like Gypsy as the most recent (in terms of my seeing it) example. Even good music can’t save the humdrum plot or the music simply wasn’t good either. I just finished watching 1979’s The Rose which is a thinly veiled biography of Janis Joplin, and in a rare subversion of most musicals that I dislike, I found myself enthralled with Bette Midler’s fiery performance and the stellar soundtrack while simultaneously loathing practically every second of the cliched and trite story that formed the core of this overly long film.

As mentioned, The Rose is the tragic story of Janis Joplin (for who else could this film possibly be about) although Bette Midler’s character, the titular Rose, is never called Janis and is someone else entirely. The Rose is a rock and roll legend who is on a whirl-wind national tour at the height of her popularity. However, the Rose has grown tired of her life of booze, drugs, and constant work and wants to take a year off. Her manager Rudge (Alan Bates) is a controlling and greedy man who is willing to sacrifice the Rose’s well-being in order to make money and works her to near exhaustion as well as pushing more drugs and booze on her. The Roses’s life is changed for the better when she meets a cab driver named Huston who tries to give her joy in life outside of her work as well as legitimate love and affection which she hasn’t had in years. However, the demands of her career and fame work to drive a wedge in their relationship as well as conspire towards Rose’s ultimate downfall.

Bette Midler was spectacular in this role. I might have hated 75% of this film but when she was putting her performance in all four gears, she was just a sight to behold. Previous to this film, my knowledge of Bette Midler was restricted to Hocus Pocus and her guest role on Seinfeld. I never knew the kind of emotional depths and tragic vulnerability that she was capable of achieving. Also, her voice just blew me away. The film’s only real saving grace outside of Midler was the film’s soundtrack and Bette Midler has a lot to do with the success there. She does a cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” that I almost prefer to the original version. Frederic Forest does a good job as the enigmatic Huston who is the anchor holding Rose down to the sane world. There was a natural chemistry between the two stars that added a layer of believability to their romance that was sorely missing from the rest of the film.

Now, here are the problems with the film. With the exception of the Rose (who is still frustratingly ill-defined), every single character in this film is more of a caricature of an established type than a fully formed creation. Her manager Rudge is so villainous and evil that he really becomes camp rather than someone I can believe to have really existed. Huston seems to be the prototypical down-to-earth country boy so completely that I almost expect that they stole an extra off of a John Ford film. There’s only one scene where he really seems to be as fallible as anyone else in the film. Also, the film’s subject matter was handled in such a heavy-handed manner that there was no chance for any subtlety in the production. The way it handled addiction and the pressures of fame often made me think I had accidentally put on a PBS special rather than a feature film. The film came off as so preachy and cliche that I could never lose myself in the story taking place on screen.

This is one of those films that I can only really recommend for academic reasons. For students of film, Bette Midler’s performance is spectacular and it deserves some analysis. However, the film itself manages to drain all of the joy I get from her bravado. This movie’s score is a balance between how much I loved Bette Midler and how much I despised virtually every other aspect of the film. When I first added this movie to my blog, I thought it was a remake of Gypsy because I thought Bette Midler was in a remake of that film. When it turned out to be entirely different subject matter, I became less worried about the film. I honestly think I would have enjoyed sitting through another version of a musical I already don’t like very much. In summation, only serious students of film or those that love Bette Midler should subject themselves to the boring torture that is this bloated and trite feature.

Final Score: C+

 In high school, on the way home from a quiz bowl tournament, one of the girls on the team was reading a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Since I’m a bibliophile and always looking for something new to read, I asked her what the book was about. She described the general plot and I immediately decided I was not interested in the story. It sounded terribly dark and depressing (it is), and I just wasn’t into that stuff back in high school. Well, I just finished watching Roman Polanski’s 1979 film adaptation of the story, Tess, and I now regret my decision not to read the book, and I’ll be seeking out a copy of it as soon as I can.

Tess is the story of the titular young woman, Tess Durberfield (Nastassja Kinski). Tess’s family discovers that they are direct descendants of an old and lorded house, the D’Urbervilles, despite the fact that they, themselves, are nothing more than poor peasants. Her parents decide to offer Tess up to live with relations that are wealthy in the hopes that the money will eventually make its way down to them. Things go south for Tess when her cousin Alec (Leigh Lawson) tries to seduce and then rapes her. She becomes with child and flees. The child dies soon after birth, and Tess runs off to a new community where she meets Angel (Peter Firth), a minister’s son that steals her heart. Because Tess’s life is horrible, things go downhill when Angel discovers about her past.

This film is beautifully directed and shot. It won an Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1979, and although I probably think Woody Allen’s Manhattan deserves that award, I don’t have a problem with it winning. I’ve only seen two other Roman Polanski films, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, and while it isn’t the all time classic that Chinatown is, it’s definitely better than Rosemary’s Baby. For a film that was nearly three hours in length, Polanski edited it in a way that managed to maintain my attention, for the most part. Maybe some scenes could have made it on the cutting room floor, but it was still masterfully done. There were a ton of great shots in the film that really turned the images on the screen into something more artful than the plot or acting happening (not that those were deficient).

The performances from the three leads were sublime. Nastassja Kinski’s transformation from a weak and terrified girl to a strong and willful woman is just a sight to behold. She manages vulnerability, intensity, and intelligence better than many actresses can do either. She’s also a knock-out to boot. Leigh Lawson is incredibly creepy as her cousin Alec, but he plays him with the kind of sleazy charm that the role requires as well. Peter Firth (I wonder if he’s related to Colin) is also fantastic as Angel. He plays him so nicely and sweetly that his turn into a bit of a dick near the end of the film’s second act still comes as a bit of a shock.

My feelings for this film are complicated to describe. I don’t really think it’s entertaining in the slightest. It’s tragic in the way that a great Shakespeare play is. I would almost describe it as the anti-Jane Austen. It’s nearly three hours of tragic romance, proto-feminism, and an examination of the silliness of Victorian class systems. So, while I don’t think the movie is entertaining, I damn well believe that it’s true art. It’s complex and the material requires that you engage with the moral ambiguity in a serious and intelligent way. I want to read the book really bad as well as watch the film adaptation of Jude, the Obscure with Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston.

If you can handle three hour long high brow think pieces, this is an easy sell. If you’re a fan of feminist literature and film, once again, it’s an easy sell. I didn’t think my dad would enjoy it all, but he came in about an hour in and seemed to enjoy the film. So maybe it’s appeal is broader than I’m giving it credit for. I have a bit of an elitist and condescending tendency to think that any movie that has my brain in analytic mode the entire time isn’t going to be enjoyed by other people, but I’m sort of an asshole that way. My next movie for this blog is the original film version of Gypsy, the one with Natalie Wood one not the Bette Midler version. I really doubt it will tickle my brain as much as this movie so hopefully my brain will be able to relax.

 Final Score: A-

 Annie Hall is one of my three favorite films of all time. Not only is it one of my favorite films from a biased fan’s perspective but it is also what I consider to be one of the greatest films ever made from a critical perspective. I think it is the greatest romantic comedy ever made, both in its originality when first written and in comparison to all of the pretenders that came after it. There are generally two schools of thought as to what is Woody Allen’s best film after Annie Hall. People normally say its either Hannah and Her Sisters (which I haven’t seen) or 1979’s Manhattan, the film I just watched and the one that has my vote. While it isn’t quite the perfect bit of meta-textual, fourth-wall breaking genius that is Annie Hall, it is still a fantastically crafted understated masterpiece.

Manhattan is a dramedy focusing on the complicated relationships among a diverse group of New York intellectuals. The film is focused around Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), a divorced man in his 40’s who is a comedy writer and one of the most neurotic people you’ll ever meet. He is dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) who is 17 years old and still in high school. Isaac’s best friend is the married Yale, an author of middling success who is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), a woman wracked with guilt for being in an affair with a married man. Isaac’s ex wife is named Jill (Meryl Streep) who left him for another woman and is writing a book about her marriage with Isaac. Things become complicated as Isaac begins to date Mary who is his age and into the same intellectual pretensions as him. What follows is an incredibly realistic portrait of modern relationships and the anxiety and stress that love and dating put us through.

This was the film that, to me, marks the departure from Allen’s more satircal and comedic earlier films to his more dramatic and serious pieces. While there are many moments in this film that are legitimately funny, this is a fairly serious and grown-up film. I’m not saying Annie Hall wasn’t grown-up (because it was devestatingly tragic and real). This film just goes even further into dramatic territory for Allen. The last movie that I watched that portrayed relationships this effectively and sincerely was Conversations With Other Women. There aren’t really happy endings in this movie. You don’t get easy answers. You just get one man’s analysis of life and love and the notion that we should take the happiness we find and not question it too deeply.

The cast for the film is great. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are so believable as a couple that you never doubt the sincerity of their scenes together (makes sense since Annie Hall is an autobiographical tale of their relationship). When Diane Keaton was younger, she was just one of the finest comedic actresses on the planet. She was the thinking man’s sex symbol. She might not have been classically beautiful, but she was smart and funny, and I love Diane Keaton. Woody Allen is as hilarious as he always is. Mariel Hemingway is appropriately precocious yet vulnerable as Isaac’s under-age lover (the relationship is creepier in retrospect considering Allen’s personal life). You also get a great jazz score for the whole film, and the movie’s opening monologue, set against George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is classic Allen.

If you like grown up dramas and grown up love stories (or lack therof), then you need to see this film. It’s mature and adult, and I guess if you aren’t of the intellectual vein, it won’t be for you. I see so much of myself in Manhattan‘s Isaac and Annie Hall‘s Alvy. I’m the neurotic, bookish, nebbish Jew so I guess that makes sense. Perhaps that’s why I love his films so much. Yet, I think it comes down to his ability to paint portraits that are both humorous and human, tragic yet full of life. I stand behind my assertion that I made a while back that I think Woody is the greatest comedic director of all time, and this film is just another piece of evidence to prove it.

 Final Score: A