“Extraterrestrial” is a movie I’ve been excited about for a while, in part because of how it was marketed – the small, almost invisible glimpses of the alien ships in the posters, and the creative viral marketing aspect to it all. Later on, when it was revealed to be something of a comedy, with a smirking Spaniard looking out and holding a glowing tennis ball, everyone cocked their eyebrows, and wondered just what this thing was going to turn out to be.
It’s a slighter film than one would initially expect, being more dependent on the inter-dynamics of the three people and their ever-revolving love triangle at the heart of it than on any kind of spectacle that you would expect from an alien invasion movie, but that’s not particularly a bad thing. There’s much to appreciate with this film, if you’re geared in for what it’s putting out. Make no mistake, this is not a movie that poses any questions or at least any intriguing questions about the notion of alien life, and while things do blow up and explode, it’s mostly incidental.
The aliens make no appearance in the film.
I’m making a big deal out of this not because it’s any kind of flaw in the film as it stands, but because I’ve heard many complaints about the movie “not being what it sold itself as,” so lets get that out in the open: it isn’t that type of movie. In fact, for most of the movie, the alien invasion is a backdrop against which this darkly humorous human drama plays out, with the occasional tropes of the genre, like the Body Snatcher, being transformed into fodder for it – it’s a romantic comedy reduced down to its barest elements, without music or any particular artifice except that of the screen: two guys and a girl in an apartment together, and complications ensue. To elaborate, designer Julio finds himself trapped in the same apartment as the woman he’d slept with the night previously, Julia, and her husband, as a flying saucer takes root over their city, while across the street, a shrewd and vindictive neighbor with an eye for the woman waits for any opportunity to lay his claim. Because of the invasion, it seems at times as if they’re the only four people in Spain, making their awkward situation one that’s almost impossible to escape, and as things become increasingly more over the top and caricatured outside of the apartment, far harder to deal with. With all other sources of communications dead, the woman and the man who’ve just met have only their thoughts and their bodies to keep them company.
Nacho Vigalondo is a director who’s work I’ve been hearing about for a while, with his previous feature “Timecrimes” being a favorite in the type of hoity-toity film circles I travel in, but have thus far managed to unconsciously avoid. Oh, what a mistake I’ve made. Here is a director who is explicitly a Spaniard in sensibility, in the brash and broad make up of his characters and their uniquely real, pock-marked faces, and the idiosyncratic, economical sense of pacing and framing that seem to define the cinema of Spain. At the same time, though, there is a real, implicit understanding of human commonality and the foibles of relationships, which is thin ice to tread because it’s so easy to mis-handle and overcook.
Even with the conceit of the alien invasion and the inevitably Spanish sense of humor that overtakes the film not a little, particularly in its final half-hour with the appearance of a balsa-wood teacup float battle-tank trundling down the empty city street, there’s still something very tangible here. In the way that Julia rolls over and asks Julio nonchalantly, “Want to have sex again?” after pining over her husband for a moment. In the way that none of the characters are idealized – none of them would ever be the smartest or the most honest or the most charming in the room. In the awkward, harsh words whispered under the breath out of spite to which no one pays attention. Because of all this, when the film does come to its inevitable “declaration of true love” conclusion, it has a bit more weight and heft than most other romantic films. As does most of the rest of the film, by consequence.
See, Hollywood? All it took was an alien invasion to wring something honest out of a romantic comedy. That was the missing element all along, you fools!
Andrew Edison’s grungy “Bindlestiffs” is an interesting experiment, filmed over a period of two years by high school friends high on a flux of Kevin Smith and the more recent spate of gross-out comedies. It has a “do this because it’s funny, and we’ll cobble it into something later” feel, something the barely pubescent director acknowledged as a sentiment in the Q & A afterward. But, it’s not a particularly pleasant film to watch, because it’s kind of ugly and garish to look at thanks to its use of hand-held camcorders and redundant sense of rhythm and pacing in terms of editing. It’s a movie that inspires laughs, at least at the beginning, up until about the twenty minute mark when you realize it has a pretty repetitive and shallow sense of humor – juvenile in the negative sense, something that really does feel like it was written by a pair of high schoolers — which it was. Mr. Edison has accomplished more than I ever did when I was in high school, though, so what do I know, right?
It was probably the only thing that we saw in Dallas that could conceivably be called an action film, and Cho Beom-gu’s bombastic, zany spurt of energy, “Quick,” is a lot of breezy, enjoyable fun. Like most Korean action films, it abounds with all sorts of disparate tropes and tones bumping up against each other, at one moment allowing us the small pleasure of a good, old fashioned trashcan-on-the-head pratfall and the next sending us headlong into one of the many visceral chase sequences.
It has an initial conceit that reminds one a lot of the “Crank” movies, which were themselves derivative of Korean cinema and video-games – that of finding out that some days you literally can’t get rid of a bomb when it’s implanted in a motorcycle helmet that’s glued to your face – where the characters all move from one set-piece to another under a ticking clock that resets once they’ve obtained their objective, with a repetitive set of goals and obstacles every time around. But, what saves the movie and what makes it so much more enjoyable for me than Neveldine and Taylor’s silly pieces of excess is Beom-gu’s propensity for, and seemingly unbridled reserve of, visual humor. This film is very much a two hour long Benny Hill sketch on a motorcycle, with all that that entails. Toward the end, it suddenly has a shift in tone veering harshly into tragedy and self-sacrifice that, though jarring, is like the best Korean action cinema, and forces us to realign our moral acquisition of the whole of the events of the film beforehand. Aside from that, it is by no means a serious film, and it lets you know that, and would probably laugh at you and spit on your shirt if it heard you try to dignify it. But, it has a strong, fist pumping effect on the audience, and is one of only two films this time around where I heard someone shout out, “Yeah! Alright!” at the screen. That, by itself, is serious stuff.
Since more than enough has already been said about Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi classic, I’m not even going to try to add in another word edgewise to that long discussion, except to say that I agree with one film critic in particular when he called it “. . .one of the best science fiction films since ‘Metropolis’.” Instead, I’d like to turn my attention more toward the screening itself, and what followed.
The screening took place in Dallas’ newly renovated Texas Theater, which I’d heard a lot about but, despite living here for about four and a half years in a row, had never actually been to. It’s a place full of nostalgia, and harkens back to a time that wasn’t actually all that long ago when going to the movies was an event, a night out, and it wasn’t at all disgraceful to actually make a date out of it.
Old, hand-painted portraits line the adobe walls, reproductions of old EC Comic book covers that become delightfully garish in the low, warm lighting of the place. There are bookshelves full of tomes old and new about cinematography and lighting, and plush, comfy couches to sit back and read them on. Restored arcade games from the early eighties occupy the downstairs lobby, and they sell film stock and Mondo posters for “8 1/2” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” This is the film critic’s movie theater, because, unlike a place like the contemporary, clean Angelika on Mockingbird, or the compact, velvet Magnolia in Uptown, it feels like it has a real, palpable history running through it and rising up from the carpet.
There’s one screen in the theater, an auditorium itself continues the bygone impression – the seats are small and red and without cup-holders. There are fans on the lowered portion of the ceiling, which opens out onto a floor made for discussions and having a film shown right behind an actor or a director’s head as they point out the idiosyncrasies of the production. The screening itself was one of those unique, insular experiences you get when you cram about two hundred people in the same room, who’ve all seen the same movie, and know all the lines and the jokes. There was a feeling of real, silent fan camaraderie through the whole thing, and I was right there laughing along with them. My girlfriend, however, hadn’t seen the film before and couldn’t quite understand why we were busting a gut when poor Kenny got his innards blown out by ED-209, or “Bitches leave.”
Later in the night, when we had an impromptu sit-down talk with the two writers and the producer of the film at the after-party at the Keller, upon telling them this, they didn’t quite know what to say. The print of the film itself, which we were told was an original 35mm copy, looked more than a little ratty and dirty, full of cigarette burns and pock-marks, and I suspect it probably would’ve been more becoming of the event if they’d used one of the various restored editions. But, they wanted the impact of saying they’d gotten one of the original prints, I suppose. After the screening, all three of them plus Peter Weller came out and hatched a Q&A session, where they talked about the various iterations of the screenplay that were in development all throughout the early eighties, it’s initial inspirations, and the strange snakelike dance movements that were almost planned for Robocop but were dropped at the last minute.
This Q&A reiterated to me something that, having met him a few times now, I’ve come to know quite well – Peter Weller doesn’t really seem to enjoy doing these things, and doesn’t much like any of his fans. He brusquely talks over them, he chides them and waves them off dismissively, and he’s generally not a very enjoyable personality. It’s a story of legacy between my brother and I, the time we managed to get him personally angry at us because we were in the same Starbucks as him and Elvis Mitchell, about six months ago. This time, neither of us said a word to him, but it was an interesting thing to just sit back and watch, and surprisingly we weren’t alone in this impression, having it repeated back to us by a girl who’s question he just plain avoided laughingly. Damn, Robocop.
The after-party for the event took place at the Keller, and it was here that I had a chance to actually talk informally about films with Michael Miner and Jon Davison. Here are two men so full of filmmaking wisdom, knowledge and wine that it was a pity I didn’t record or at least transcribe the whole thing, because it was an intensely interesting conversation. On the subject of first time directors, he noted that a lot of them made the mistake of trying to do too much, formally – something on which we agreed upon.
“Mainly what you need to worry about is coverage, which is something you’ll discover pretty early on if you’ve never directed anything. If you have a good script, a good crew and good actors, your main concern should just be getting them on camera,” Davison said. “A lot of younger directors say they’re tired of the shot/reverse shot dynamic to most conversational scenes, but there’s a reason they exist, rhythmically.”
He’d also met one of my favorite filmmakers, George Miller, and had worked with him several times when he made his few ventures into America in the eighties – here I was, a writer who’d made my name on the internet with two essays dissecting Miller’s dancing penguin movies, and here was another guy who shared very much the same thoughts as I had when I wrote them, without having ever read it. We both agreed that “Happy Feet” was an under-appreciated film that brought a lot to contemporary, mainstream animation, but that it’ll be good to see him get involved with real actors again. We then had a hearty laugh, and all went our separate ways. It was a good night.