Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alien Raiders (2008)

I was recommended to see the sf/horror movie Alien Raiders by a friend who said that it is much better than the title suggests. I found it to be a mildly diverting way to spend 82 minutes, so I guess he was right.

The main thing I liked about this movie is that it assumed that anyone who is renting something called Alien Raiders already knows the rules of the genre and doesn't want to get bogged down with pointless exposition. The movie sets up the characters and the situation with remarkable efficiency, using shorthand to set everything up. The downside of this is that it means the movie is generic enough that nothing really needs to be explained because nothing new or original is going on. It's basically yet another rip-off of Alien and The Thing.

Everything about the movie is at least competent. The acting, the dialogue, the camerawork, the special effects - everything is good enough. The monsters are admirably kept off-screen as much as possible, so we never get much of a chance to complain about how cheap they are. There's no outright cheating in the plotting, and the coincidences (e.g. the heroine's stepfather just happening to be an ace hostage negotiator) don't become too annoying.

The best thing about the whole movie, in my opinion, was the performance of Bonita Friedericy in a key role as a junkie who has critical information about the aliens. She has a great dry delivery of her smart-arse dialogue that works perfectly. The rest of the characters are standard cliché types: the quiet kid who discovers he has backbone, the cowardly overweight boss, the tough black guy, the tough guy with a sad past, etc.

All in all, if you're the kind of person who would rent a movie called Alien Raiders then you'll probably be happy with this one. Personally I need this kind of movie to have something a little more: some social or political commentary, or some witty dialogue, or at least for the story to not be totally predictable.

Alien Raiders should be how good most of these movies are, but most sf/horror I've seen is worse. My disillusionment with the horror genre in general continues - I am no longer content for a horror movie to just be "good enough".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mr. Arkadin - the boat scene

In my haste to get the first post up on my new blog, I neglected to mention the astonishing scene that really solidified my obsession with this movie. In a movie filled with arresting images, the boat scene is the one that’s always haunted me.

There are spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t seen Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report and intend to, you might not want to read further.

The scene involved Mily (Patricia Medina) on Arkadin’s boat, drunkenly taunting him with the information she has learned about his past. In a way this is exposition, as it includes more background on Arkadin than any other scene in the movie, but it’s much more than that. The camera is in constant motion, and looking closely so is the set. The room sways dramatically in all directions, and Mily is thrown around the room, bracing herself against the wall. Meanwhile Arkadin himself is solidly anchored, dominating the scene.

Every time I watch this scene I find it disorienting and disturbing. There is an air of menace about it that goes beyond Mily’s dawning realisation that Arkadin is not going to allow her to walk away with the information she has gathered about him. Arkadin’s bizarre make-up really makes him look like an avatar of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and of earthquakes, which makes sense given the rocking of the room, the ocean-bound location of the scene, and the fact that after the scene is concluded Arkadin is going to drown Mily (Welles’s version of the movie was supposed to open with her naked body washed up on the beach, a shot that is missing from most versions and placed directly after this scene in others).

In addition, the scene is shot in a sexually charged manner, highlighting Mily’s voluptuous figure and Arkadin’s domination of her. In context, she has managed to get a job on his boat as an “entertainer” as a way of getting more information about him; there is no doubt that her entertaining is not limited to singing and dancing. What exactly happens between the end of this scene and the discovery of Mily’s body? It’s one of many mysteries implicit in Mr. Arkadin.

Unfortunately, this scene doesn't seem to be on Youtube or I would link to it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mr. Arkadin (1955)

The movie Mr. Arkadin has fascinated me for years. Written & directed by and starring Orson Welles, it is strangely elusive even while watching it. I've seen four different versions of the movie, including the "comprehensive version" assembled over fifty years after its original release, listened to the radio shows that inspired it, and browsed the English translation of the French novelization of the original script, and it still remains a rumour, a ghost.

In some versions, Arkadin opens with a short piece of narration about a plane that was discovered to be flying without a pilot. This is appropriate, as Welles was fired during post-production and it was completely re-edited without his involvement; no Welles-approved version of the movie exists. I'll never know how Welles would have put the movie together, so I have to piece it together in my mind.

The story is fairly standard for a noir-ish thriller: smuggler and general scoundrel Guy Van Stratten is hired by a tycoon to investigate his past, under the pretext of having amnesia; of course, the tycoon's old associates start turning up dead. What makes it interesting are the particulars, and also the structure: in most versions, the movie is mostly told in an elaborate series of flashbacks as the now-desperate Van Stratten tries to extricate himself from the situation.

While on the one hand Arkadin is one of Welles's more commercial directorial efforts - in most respects it's a straight thriller - it is experimental in a number of ways, especially in how it keeps audience identification at arm's length. There seems to be a deliberate effort to make the male leads as unsympathetic as possible; Arkadin is distant and sinister, while Van Stratten is a charmless jerk, and both are shown using and discarding people thoughtlessly. The visuals and the performances are also highly stylised. But it's also very pulpy, and at times almost feels like an artfully-made exploitation flick.

Welles himself is terrible in the movie, wearing a particularly ridiculous fake nose and beard. And yet, with the themes of masks and hidden identities crowding every corner, his ham acting and obvious make-up seem to work in the movie's favour. Robert Arden has taken a lot of knocks as Van Stratten, but I suspect he's exactly as Welles wanted. Paola Mori was capably dubbed by Billie Whitelaw, which isn't as obvious as it might have been since the whole movie is post-synchronised (with Welles himself dubbing half a dozen major characters). The best performance, in my opinion, is by Patricia Medina as Mily; she provides the closest thing the movie has to a human centre.

A good part of the movie is made up of Van Stratten visiting and interviewing a slew of bizarre characters, played by an interesting cast including Michael Redgrave, Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou. Arkadin's character is assembled from bits of hearsay and stories, as well as what's implicit in the things that they don't quite say. This structure is dimilar to that of Citizen Kane, but in Arkadin the approach is deliberately more subjective. In the end, particularly as we don't have Welles's final version, he remains something of an enigma.

I have to wonder if I would find it as compelling if it had been finished to Welles's satisfaction. There is an uneasy sense throughout the movie that everything adds up to less than the sum of its parts, much as there is a sense that if we knew just a little more Arkadin himself would turns out to be less omnipotent and more ordinary. But there's always hope that there is a solution, a good one, hidden somewhere in the fabric of the movie. I'll keep looking until I find it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010 with the new!

I'd like to say "Thank you so much" to my good friend David Ritchie, who hosted my old blog for so long and put up with all my guff. You rock, man.

I'm off to Foxton for the weekend (baby cousin's wedding) and when I return next week, this blog will start in earnest. Whatever that means.

Right now I'm excited about going to see 11 & 12 at the Festival of the Arts tonight. Yay!