Movie Postmortem #9: ALIEN: COVENANT

by John S.

Movie Postmortem is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Alien: Covenant

THE CASE HISTORY: June 2012. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the much-anticipated prequel-turned-sidequel to his 1979 classic Alien, opens to big box-office in North America. Nabbing around $51 million in its first weekend of release, the flick is praised for its stunning visuals and Scott’s usual sleek craftsmanship. Less praised is the film’s plot, which doesn’t quite deliver on all the promise the memorably visceral trailers hinted at. Indeed, after that massive opening (a franchise best) Prometheus’ box-office slopes down sharply and stops at around $126 million, domestically. Fortunately, the movie pulls in around $275 million overseas, bringing its global total to just north of $400 million. Good enough for a sequel.

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BODY HEAT: Hot, Sexy Neo-Noir

by Norm Nielsen

Early in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Body Heat, Matty Walker (played by Kathleen Turner) fires off two lines at Ned Racine (William Hurt) that neatly preview the plot and set the tone of the film: “Some men, once they get a whiff of it, they trail you like a hound.” And, “You’re not too smart are you? I like that in a man.” In the film’s nearly two hours running time, Matty, in the film noir tradition, expertly shows how a beautiful, sexy woman can easily manipulate a man when lust transports his brain to his crotch.

Ned Racine is a cocky, bottom-dwelling attorney in fictional Miranda Beach, Florida. Ned meets Matty at a nighttime outdoor concert during an oppressive heat wave. Like the quote above, he gets a whiff and pursues her incessantly. Matty is smart, beautiful, and sexy; however, she is married to wealthy, but shady, real estate developer Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna). Ned and Matty start a torrid affair, their lust enflamed by the heat wave. Their bodies, both clothed and unclothed, sweat profusely as the passion heats up. It is soon apparent that Matty’s being married is an inconvenience, but because of a pre-nuptial agreement her divorce would be financially ruinous. Thus; a well-planned murder is carried out. Following the murder, Ned slowly realizes that Matty had an alternative plan all along, initiated before they met, and not to Ned’s benefit. Way too late, Ned discovers that Matty is a femme fatale.

Body Heat is great neo-noir on par with The Last Seduction, Chinatown, and L.A. Confidential. Like most film noir, it is about what drives people to crime. It takes almost all the classic film noir elements (a femme fatale, numerous night scenes, car headlights in the fog, high contrast lighting, shadows on the wall, moral ambiguity, pervasive cigarette smoking, etc.), and puts them in a modern world without making the film feel contrived, staged or unnatural. The film uses extreme heat to create a noir atmosphere, a device commonly used in hard-boiled crime fiction as in Raymond Chandler’s novels. The hot, humid air in Body Heat breathes sex, deadly sex.

Body Heat showcases exemplary screenwriting and directing. It was Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut; he had previously written the scripts for the smash hits The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan, who wrote the Body Heat script in addition to directing the film, did such a brilliant job at both tasks that the film almost demands two viewings. The first viewing will likely focus on the Ned Racine character. But the second viewing will undoubtedly focus on the Matty Walker character. Nearly every scene in the film plays two ways.

Body Heat is also notable for its breakout performances. It was Kathleen Turner’s first film; she had previously done television soap operas. Almost channeling Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall, Ms. Turner plays a woman so sexually confident that we can believe her lover could be dazed into doing almost anything for her. William Hurt had only two previous film credits but here effects a lazy arrogance to his speech, as if amused by his own intelligence but dumbed down by his lust. Ted Danson, who previously had only done television, has a meaty role as an attorney friend of Ned Racine and even does a nifty dance step. Mickey Rourke plays a professional arsonist who is one of Ned Racine’s seedy clients.

Were it not for the Motion Pictures Production Code, classic films noir like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) could have played like Body Heat by featuring sweaty naked bodies, simulated sex, profanity, and an unabashedly amoral plot. The Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was the set of industry moral guidelines in effect from 1930 to 1968 that specified what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. The Production Code called for depictions of the “correct standards of life,” and forbade a picture from showing any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.” Nudity, sex scenes, and profanity were definitely not permissible. Body Heat exemplifies how far major American films have evolved from the Production Code almost to the point of gleefully celebrating the code’s demise. Thank goodness for that.

 

Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Video volunteer and Scarecrow Project Member.

TANGERINE: A Neo-Screwball Comedy

by Norm Nielsen

Being a middle-class white male, watching countless films has greatly expanded my world view. Films give me insights to different cultures, nationalities, genders, mindsets, and personalities I would never experience outside of my limited social sphere. Sean Baker’s 2015 Tangerine gave me a look into a subculture I know exists but certainly have never experienced: the daily life of Los Angeles’ transsexual sex workers.

Tangerine stars two transgender women of color played by – get this – trans women of color: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. The film opens on Christmas Eve in a Donut Time shop in sunny Hollywood with Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) discussing estrogen treatments and the way “all men cheat.” Sin-Dee has just been released from 28 days in jail for prostitution; Sin-Dee is about to tell close friend Alexandra that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has proposed marriage to her when Alexandra inadvertently says that Chester has a new girlfriend – another sex worker, one who has “a vagina and everything,” and worse, is white. That cheating is an occupational prerogative for a pimp doesn’t much concern Sin-Dee, who soon is hot in search of Chester and his mystery woman (Mickey O’Hagan as Dinah). Alexandra, the more pacific of the friends, agrees to accompany her, but only after Sin-Dee promises there will be “no drama” – an empty promise because Sin-Dee is a cyclone of rage and emotional venting. “The world can be a cruel place,” Alexandra consoles Sin-Dee. “Yes, it is cruel,” Sin-Dee replies. “God gave me a penis. That’s pretty cruel, don’t you think?”

Eventually Sin-Dee’s drama is too much for Alexandra who goes back to working the streets. Sin-Dee cannot afford a car. Tangerine follows her search for Chester and Dinah through Los Angeles’ streets on foot, on buses, and subway. The contemporary Los Angeles Sin-Dee and Alexandra inhabit is one rarely seen on film – a low-rent city of doughnut shops, coin-op laundromats, dive motels, bus rides, and jumped subway turnstiles.

While Sin-Dee is on her search for Chester and Dinah, Alexandra encounters a john who doesn’t pay and both have a subsequent run in with cops. She also has an oral sex scene with an Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) in a drive-through car wash over the hypnotic sounds of brushes slapping and dryers humming, as soap suds stream down the windshield – utterly remarkable and hilarious.

The various storylines converge in time-honored screwball comedy form at the Donut Time shop that night when Sin-Dee confronts Chester with all other principal characters present. The dialog is fast paced, razor sharp, and funny as hell.

In an interview, director Sean Baker said, “A lot of trans women of color are forced to resort to sex work. I want the audience to empathize enough to want to learn more.” Baker has created a film that never settles for obvious polarities or entrenches its characters in two-dimensional assumptions about their moral or strategic priorities. Baker shows the precarious poverty that informs their everyday choices, and the vulnerability that makes trans sex workers a magnet for abuse and heartbreak. Tangerine celebrates the hot mess of its characters’ lives with empathy and respect, never condescending to judge their actions. You don’t pity these girls, though you may wish something better for them.

Tangerine takes its title from the movie’s sunny, saturated cinematography, in which an orange candy glow coats the gritty streets. The effect is especially remarkable given that Baker and his director of photography, Radium Cheng, shot Tangerine using iPhone 5s with Moondog Labs anamorphic adapters (for a wide-angle image). Each iPhone 5 had the Filmic Pro app which captured 24 frames per second while allowing for control over white balance, focus, and exposure. The resulting images are remarkable; they found beauty in the dingiest locations. But the real advantage of using iPhones was the freedom gained by Baker and his production team to work in all kinds of locations without attracting attention. Tangerine is a scripted, fictional tale, and its editing and sound design are as sophisticated as any major motion picture, but the shooting style is pure cinéma vérité. And the budget for Tangerine was only about $100,000.

In post-production Baker used Da Vinci Resolve professional software to correct contrast and color saturation. The colors are wonderfully warm and saturated, creating a kind of hyper-realism that is a perfect complement to the main character’s penchant for drama. While not the first movie shot in this democratic medium, the accessibility of Tangerine may open up new worlds of low-budget cinematic possibilities. Anyone who loves movies should see this film on these grounds alone, regardless of whether the subject matter interests you. The future is here and now.

 

Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Video volunteer and Scarecrow Project Member.

Movie Postmortem #8: PASSENGERS

by John S.

Movie Postmortem is a series that reviews films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Passengers

THE CASE HISTORY: Los Angeles 2007. Passengers, a screenplay about a man who is awakened prematurely during a deep interstellar journey, and who subsequently awakens a female traveler out of loneliness, lands on that year’s “Black List.” An annual listing of the Best Unproduced Scipts in Hollywood, the “Black List” is kind of a badge of honor for screenwriters. Many scripts that land on this list are subsequently greenlighted into production.

The same will eventually be true for Passengers. However, it first goes through years of false starts. Initially intended as a vehicle for Keanu Reeves, the production is delayed by lack of a female lead. Emily Blunt, Rachel McAdams, and Reese Witherspoon are each attached at various points before moving on. Eventually, Reeves himself leaves the project. Now lacking both a leading man and a leading lady, Passengers looks like it may stay even longer on the Black List, a quality script that remains unproduced.

Meanwhile, Jon Spaihts, Passengers’ writer, keeps busy on other high-profile projects: one of his other scripts, Alien: Engineers, eventually gets the greenlight as Prometheus, which is released in 2012 to worldwide success, leading to renewed interest in Passengers. The production is eventually revived by the entrance of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, two of the most popular stars today. With them onboard, Passengers finally goes into production.

December 2016. Passengers is released in North America to many negative critical notices and lukewarm opening weekend box office: just under $15 million. For stars of Lawrence and Pratt’s stature, this is an underwhelming start. Eventually, though, Passengers grows legs and reaches the $100 million mark, domestically. Globally, it takes in over $300 million. Financially, it’s a nice save after a precarious launch. Critically, however, the film is thrashed.

So what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: Passengers is an intriguing film: a space saga that has no Xenomorphs or intergalactic warfare or Death Stars or body counts. Just two people and an unusual love story. I can see why the original script by Jon Spaihts wound up on the Black List. While it’s certainly not the best screenplay ever written, it is a compelling, atypical read that blends genres and, in doing so, defies genre conventions.

Therein may lie the problem. Mainstream audiences these days want more of the same even though they pretend to want something new. They also want to know what exactly they’re getting – even if they if they pretend to want to be surprised. It’s possible the marketing for the movie may have made it hard to pin down exactly what the story is about. Is it a thriller? An action film?  A romance? A dark comedy? Actually, it is all of that – but mostly a romance. Change the setting to a cruise ship or an island on Earth and the story beats would essentially remain the same. It’s the space angle that may have thrown audiences for a loop. This confusion may have led to that “weak” $15 million opening. Also, let’s not forget how difficult it is now for films that are not part of a known brand or franchise to even get made, let alone get a foothold at the box office.

Happily, that soft start led to long legs that saw the film eventually top $100 million in North America, and even more overseas, acquiting itself and suggesting people may have belatedly discovered what they were missing. Imagine if that opening weekend take had been higher: Passengers would have certainly grossed even more, given that strong 6.5  multiplier. Mainstream audiences may have slowly flocked to the movie, ignoring the numerous negative reviews citing the “creepiness” of the central concept of a man awakening a woman out of hypersleep because of loneliness.

These critical complaints are a bit short-sighted and fail to credit the innovation of the premise or take into account the complexity of human nature. True, Chris Pratt may not quite have the emotional intensity and dramatic depth to make his character’s decision 100% forgivable (I would have cast Andrew Garfield for that) but Pratt is so naturally likable that he makes it at least fathomable. Ditto Lawrence, who is less fiery here than she’s been elsewhere but is no less appealing for it. She and Pratt have just enough chemistry to sell their connection and make it a satisfying journey.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: The largely negative reviews for Passengers, coupled with the unusual premise, may have initially turned audiences away on opening weekend. However, the “star power” of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, as well as word-of-mouth indicating the flick isn’t really bad at all, may have lured people back to the theaters – eventually vindicating the film (at least financially).

NEXT CASUALTY: Alien: Covenant – “Run. Hide. Scream.”

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

A Special FREE Multimedia Presentation at Scarecrow

Movies can provide insight into the world and others’ points of view. They can also be a playground for the imagination and a means of visualizing the impossible. But how do movies actually engage the mind? How do we “think” through a film? Join us and film scholar Lance Rhoades for a multimedia presentation and conversation about movies, intelligence, and creativity. Along the way, we’ll enjoy examples of cinema that celebrates the great minds of the ages.