In space, no one can hear you scream — but on Earth, obnoxious fawning is as audible as ever. Look no further than the truly disappointing documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien for an example of how incessant pseudo-babble can waste ninety minutes of a fan’s life with over-the-top cinematic canonization, laughably far-flung thematic theories, and a nearly total lack of practical analysis. What’s more embarrassing — and annoying — is that some of the cavalcade of talking heads paraded on screen likely know less about Alien than many of the viewers who would presumably watch this film. And the rest? They’re more interested in shallowly celebrating genius than examining it.
A clumsy attempt at artistry makes for an ominous opening, heading out to deep space almost immediately on a voyage that will see very little of grounded reality. Still, get past the out-of-place dramatization of ancient Greek monster people and things do kick off somewhat traditionally. Writer Dan O’Bannon is given a brief profile that points toward his sci-fi interests in H.P. Lovecraft, space comics, and B-movies like The Thing From Another World and Them! as inspirations, and for a second it seems like Memory: The Origins of Alien is actually going to live up to its title by diving into the details of the scripting process, giving cinema junkies the insights they crave into a horror classic.
However, that is simply not to be, as director Alexandre O. Phillipe soon resorts to the same sort of love-fest that brought down his slightly better Hitchcock doc, 78/52. Somehow, over the course of the last forty years, Alien has gone from a masterfully crafted genre pic with outstanding production design to a world-changing work of art that tackles the patriarchy while criticizing imperialism and depicting the inequities of the class struggle, all as it expertly exploits and exposes male sexual fears. Who knew?
But do we learn this from O’Bannon himself, or Ridley Scott? Nope. The former has passed away, and thus is only heard from via old interviews very occasionally spliced in, while the latter is mysteriously absent from Origins of Alien outside yet more decade-old clips. But even those snippets from the actual creators rarely offer any tidbits beyond generalities; what really drove the artistry behind turning a solid but unexceptional script into an iconic franchise is largely ignored in favor of continual heaping of praise, and often hilarious stabs at Film Theory. Perhaps Scott wanted nothing to do with the circle jerk.
So, be prepared for plenty of hot takes about the power of Ripley’s portrayal, as one guest cracks an ironic grin at how this strong female character is probably so complex and rational because she was originally written as a man. Of course, actual fans of Alien will know that all characters were originally written as unisex — as stated in the actual script — and were “interchangeable for men or women.” Nice theory, though. And when another interviewee marvels at the bold stylistic choice of overlapping dialogue — you know, the kind that had already been popular for almost an entire decade before the crew of the Nostromo had ever been heard of, and was even featured in blockbusters like Jaws — it’s hard not to wonder why we’re listening to these people.
If there’s one saving grace to Memory: The Origins of Alien (and there’s not, really), it would be the behind-the-scenes footage. Watching H.R. Giger sculpt models (even if we don’t learn much of his process outside of taking inspiration from Lovecraft and Francis Bacon) and seeing how the chestburster scene was constructed, staged, and shot, will give fans who haven’t watched any ‘making of’ featurettes some pleasure. Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright offer some amusing anecdotes and debunk the myth that the actors had no idea what was going to happen, and hearing Cartwright explain her background reactions is among the only entertaining parts in an otherwise tedious and uninformative experience.
Fans of Alien should look elsewhere for enlightenment on one of the best horror movies ever made. At times nearly as ridiculous as Room 237 but (unlike that hoot) never in on the joke, Memory: The Origins of Alien is a shallow gush-fest that seems to have nothing to say, but keeps talking anyway.
‘Bacurau’ Is Grim, Bloody, and Politically Charged
Strange things are afoot in the small Brazilian village of Bacurau. In addition to an ongoing shortage of water, food, and medicine, the town has seemingly vanished from the map and lost all contact with the outside. Not long after, people start going missing and strangers are spotted nearby. Clearly something sinister is afoot, but just how sinister doesn’t become apparent right away. Bacurau is one of those films that doesn’t mince words when it comes to social commentary. It frames the dire situation felt by many Brazilians in rural areas in the harshest of terms, sometimes going past satire and into realms extreme enough to make many audience members more than a little uncomfortable. While it may feel hyperbolic when taken literally, Bacurau’s story of ruthless predation ultimately cuts to the quick when it comes to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between first and third world countries.
Bacurau will make people uncomfortable, and that’s entirely by design.
We soon learn that the strange happenings in Bacurau are due to a group of white tourists who have come to the remote village for one purpose: to hunt people. Armed with drones and assault weapons, they’re presented as thrillseekers looking to get their kicks via wholesale slaughter. So yeah, not exactly subtle. This is a movie that deals, in no uncertain terms, with the predation of people of color by whites. The ‘hunters’ are depicted as largely monstrous, delighting in their seeming free reign to kill purely for the joy of it. “This is awesome,” one woman says breathlessly before unleashing a Tommygun on an innocent couple. Minutes later, she and her partner are furiously copulating in the grass. North Americans are framed as a destructive force, one that might only be possible to repel with further violence. To facilitate that violence, the would-be victims also have to turn to their own worst impulses and elements, recruiting local criminals just to have a fighting chance. Bacurau will make people uncomfortable, and that’s entirely by design.
It’s an angry movie, one filled with an urgency that belies its relatively sedate pace. With an atmosphere reminiscent of some Westerns, it takes its time in setting up the players. It also doesn’t really feel as though it really ratchets up the pace or tempo even when bullets begin flying. This last point may put some people off, especially if they’re anticipating a much more fiery climax than the film ultimately has. Things get bloody, no doubt about it, but this never quite turns into Assault on Precinct 13. No, this is more like the ending of a particularly bleak and unglamorized Western — with brief, brutal violence punctuated by long silences. This, of course, makes that violence hit all the harder.
Bacurau is the kind of bold, no-holds-barred movie we need more of.
If anything truly holds the film back, it’s the almost too-wide focus. The film has a rather expansive cast, and spends as much time on the trigger-happy tourists as the villagers they’ve come to slaughter. As a result, not many of the characters really stand out. It’s an ensemble piece, but having one or two core characters who we could really get a sense of would not have been amiss. As it is, nobody really has an arc, per se. Many of the characters seemingly primed for main character status vanish for the finale as well.
Bacurau is the kind of bold, no-holds-barred movie we need more of. It’s ruthless and angry and uncompromised, the kind of film born out of frustration with the state of the world. And hey, in 2019 we might need more of those.
‘Nail in the Coffin – The Fall and Rise of Vampiro’: Another Wrestling Doc Worth Seeing
Festival du Nouveau Cinema
When it comes to the world of professional wrestling, most wrestling fans derive as much pleasure watching people talk about wrestling as they do watching wrestling itself, and ever since Paul Jay released his controversial Brett the Hitman Hart documentary, Wrestling with Shadows, we’ve seen a number of excellent behind-the-scenes wrestling-themed documentaries made over the years.
For decades, pro wrestling has had its share of drama, both inside and outside of the ring and for devoted fans, wrestling documentaries have provided a candid and deeply personal look at the lives of some of the world’s most famous wrestlers. Many of these documentaries have been produced by the WWE of course, so obviously there’s a certain amount of bias that goes into making them— but every so often, a documentary produced outside of the WWE is released, and provides raw insight into the politics and backstage mechanics that often tear apart the lives of those involved. And usually, the best of these docs go out of their way to give viewers a different perspective on important events in wrestling’s history that fans would otherwise never see. Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro, the directorial debut from Michael Paszt about Richard Ian Hodgkinson, is one of those films.
Ian Richard Hodgkinson is a name most people won’t recognize but die-hard fans who’ve followed professional wrestling over the years will know who he is. Everyone else will know him as Vampiro or the Canadian Vampire, a living legend in Lucha Libre (Mexico’s version of the popular sport) and one of WCW’s most underrated stars. Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro follows his career from its beginnings in 1991, when the then 20-year-old, punk-rock Canadian made his debut, to his current job, working as a talent director for Lucha Libre AAA. For the most part, the documentary chronicles the latter part of this career, concentrating on his relationship with his daughter and his declining physical health.
Like most wrestling documentaries, the story it tells is at times a dark one— Nail in the Coffin doesn’t shy away from the realities of injuries, painkillers, and recreational drug use, nor the wrestler’s tragic past growing up. Vampiro has broken his neck and his back several times as well as suffered around twenty-seven concussions in his lifetime. He has a history of substance abuse and was recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and when he was younger he was molested as a teenager which led him down a path of organized crime working for the Montreal mafia before landing a gig as a bodyguard for Milli Vanilli. From there, he risked everything and heading to Mexico where he became a star before signing a lucrative dollar contract with the WCW (the title of the film is actually named after his WCW finishing move). That’s when he suffered a severe neck injury that sidelined him for three years and lost him millions of dollars.
Given its short running time, it’s impressive how much ground Michael Paszt covers. Other topics introduced include the influence of Lucha Libre and the differences between Mexican and U.S. wrestling as well as the process of directing a televised broadcast and the unexpected problems that can arise due to the backstage bickering between the wrestlers which can drastically alter the course of a show. It’s also interesting how Hodkinson claims he was never trained to be a professional wrestler and admits that it was his good looks and charisma that won over the crowd, particularly the female audience who helped him become a legend in Mexico.
Despite being the legendary wrestler who helped popularize Mexican Lucha Libre in the United States, what makes Nail in the Coffin different than most wrestling documentaries is how it places a larger focus on the relationship between Hodgkinson and his teenage daughter Dasha. Nail in the Coffin is first and foremost a documentary about a father— it just so happens to be a professional wrestler. Hodkinson repeats several times throughout the doc that he hates wrestling, and although those statements are likely not true, it does highlight that even when the shit hits the fan, he powers through the hard times in order to provide for his family. The documentary never makes you forget that Hodgkinson is first and above all, a father who constantly puts his daughter first. The father-daughter relationship is the emotional core of the film, and without it, Nail in the Coffin would be a lesser film.
Michael Paszt’s documentary could have made a better two-part series on a streaming service like Netflix given that there is so much ground to cover and not enough time to explore every topic addressed. For fans of the sport, there is certainly enough behind the scenes footage to pique their interest, but I also couldn’t help but wish we saw more of Vampiro’s most famous wrestling matches including his time working with WCW. Still, there is plenty of extensive footage to make Nail in the Coffin worth seeing, and despite the short running time, the film manages to be a fascinating character study that every wrestling fan should see.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019:
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
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