Film review – Alien (Director’s Cut) (Ridley Scott, 1979)

I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Alien. I’m sure I was far too young. I know this because I remember I was really sad I couldn’t see Alien 3 at the cinema. I’ve calculated that I was eight years old at the time. Why was I gutted? Because I’d already seen the first two films and didn’t want to wait.

Yes, that’s right. Somehow either my mum was supremely lenient or we pulled a fast one on her and managed to get a VHS copy of both films.

Looking back on the 1979 debut, it’s easy to see what the appeal was for a eight-year-old. Sure, the heart of the film lies in a character-driven plot and it’s powered by Scott’s unwavering ability to build suspense. At the time I wasn’t sat there thinking “Well, Parker and Brett have an agenda now because of this pay dispute, so this is going to get really interesting.” No. I was looking at the alien, the guns, the space travel and the explosions.

All of these things are, unquestionably, of great appeal to a child. Or, at least, they were to this child.


It was great, then, to finally see this masterpiece of cinema on the big screen as part of Alien Day. As an adult. And, completing the circle, with my mum as well. 

It’s a film that deserves to be seen on the big sceeen, away from disturbances that home viewing might detract from the experience. 

The film was originally released in 1979, in the midst of the wave of hysteria for space-based films created by Star Wars. However, it is very much the antethesis of the 1977 space opera. The distant past setting is replaced with a not-too-distant future. The bright and open planets are replaced with a singular, isolated spaceship. The droids played for light relief are dropped in favour of a malfunctioning synthetic human with a hidden agenda.

Indeed, whilst the film may have seemed like a lucrative prospect for 20th Century Fox after Star Wars, Alien owes a lot more to films like Jaws or Forbidden Planet in both tone and pacing.

It is a film about isolation, playing on the claustrophobia of being trapped in the middle of nowhere and allowing your survival instincts to take over. 


Jerry Goldsmith’s score, conducted by Lionel Newman and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, may be one of the most perfectly-suited film scores ever crafted. It starts off exactly where the audience do at the beginning of the film – somewhere between romanticism and intrigue. As the horror unfolds, the score increases in intensity and loses any sweetness it ever had, heightening every moment we see on screen.

The set design and the Alien itself was famously designed by surrealist artist H. R. Giger. It’s as iconic as the film itself, critical to the story and heightening the horror when we eventually see the creature fully formed in the final act of the film.

It was a hard act to follow and they’ve spent 38 years trying to reach the heights of the original film. James Cameron’s sequel may be preferred by some, but for me you simply can’t compare that to the original. They are in the same universe but are completely different genres, one wrapped in suspense and the other all-out action.

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Film review – Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)

For all its technological achievements and successes as a great tale, William A. Wellman’s 1927 cinematic epic is remembered for one thing – it’s the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ceremony was far removed from what we know today. The winners were announced three months before the ceremony and it was a much smaller affair than the modern interpretation, with the awarding of prizes taking around fifteen minutes to complete. Wings actually won a prize called “Outstanding Picture”, later renamed to Best Film, making it famous at the expense of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The latter won the similarly-named “Unique and Artistic Picture” on the same night, though on the night it is unlikely this was treated as a runner-up prize.

Wings concerns two love rivals – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – who are fighting for the attention and affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack’s persistence is so committed that he fails to notice his tomboyish next-door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), despite her continuous effort to get him to notice her. They enlist in the Air Service as trainee fighter pilots. It covers their time in World War I as they complete training, launch into their first battles and become close friends.

It is perhaps a simple plot by today’s standards, but it’s often not the premise that makes a film great but the delivery. This is close to perfection.

Films like this may have been wonders when they were released, but few stand the test of time and allow enjoyment and excitement for the viewers today. Indeed, we are now 90 years further on in cinematic technological advancements and there isn’t a single person involved with the film that is alive today.

The world of cinema should be eternally grateful that Paramount decided to invest £900,000 in restoring this picture. The results are worth considering so you know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing.

On the positive, the picture is absolutely crystal clear. Many segments of the film were unseen for years by the general public, and whenever Wings did surface it was in a severely compromised form. A duplicate negative was found in Paramount’s archives, though this too suffered from significant damage baked into the print. However, digitising the original negatives and painstakingly restoring the film has done wonders for the visual experience. Credit must be given to Executive Director of Restoration Tom Burton and the team at Technicolor Creative Services for such a wonderful result, utilising tinting techniques of the era for added authenticity.

This has been matched up with a new recording of J. S. Zamecnik’s original score by Dominik Häuser and Michael Aarvold. The score was for a 14 reel version of the film that was edited down to 13 reels for the theatrical and roadshow release. Therefore there was a portion of freedom given to the scoring pair, but it is clear the right decisions have been made at each step, as evidenced by the moving results contained on the restored masterpiece. 

Controversially, the sound features sound effects that match to the visual image. Will McKinley has written a fantastic article about the positives and negatives of this, arguing both sides of the toss in a far more eloquent way than I could manage. It’s well worth a read. For me, these additional sounds are 100% in the score and I can see the restoration team’s predicament. If they omitted them it would sound more “authentic”, but only in as much as it’s what a modern audience expects from a 1920s sound film. This score was steeped in innovation and, like the technological risks taken in shooting the visuals, was way ahead of its time. I’m happy the music sticks to the original score, and if you don’t like it you can try an alternative option on the disc (provided by Gaylord Carter), or even mute the whole thing!

Utilising the trainee pilot angle, director Wellman was able to draw on his experience as a First World War pilot to create some absolutely astonishing sequences. They were all filmed on brilliantly blue but cloudy days, which gives the planes some scale and improves the dynamic nature of the dogfights. 

There is also a cinematic first in the film, with the first onscreen man-to-man kiss. It comes in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. David has become stranded behind enemy lines and steals a plane to return home. Jack, already believing his friend has died, is on a suicide mission to take down as many enemy pilots as possible to help the war efforts, in careless abandonment of his own safety. Miraculously he survives his plan, shooting down innumerable enemy aircrafts. On returning, he spots one last pilot heading towards the Allied base. He goes in for the kill, without knowing that it is in fact his best friend David. When he lands and seeks the enemy to seal his victory, he realises what he has done. As David dies in Jack’s arms, the complex emotions get the better of them and there on screen is the first same-sex kiss, albeit perhaps accidental. It simply couldn’t have been cut or reshot – it’s integral to the plot and seals their respective positions in their friends’ lives.

The Masters of Cinema team are the perfect choice to take control of such a historic release. There are three bonus features on the Blu-ray disc: one covering the restoration, one that puts the flight aspects of the film into context and one that covers the legacy of the film. The accompanying booklet is full of additional information and essays on the film and director. It just fits the gravitas deserved of the film.

That we can now sit in our front rooms and see a film of this importance in such high quality is a wonderful feeling. The history of cinema is too important to simply let go. It’s fantastic that an entire new generation have the opportunity to see where cinema started and Wings certainly represents a significant piece of the puzzle.

Film review – Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2017)

Manchester By The Sea is by no stretch of the imagination a happy film. That it was advertised in some channels as a comedy is beyond me. It’s a bleak look into one man’s struggles with his past during a particularly depressing period of his life, and I’m not sure that there was a particularly happy ending to it either. But it is absolutely deserving of its plaudits, and the results are both effecting and memorable.

WARNING! The next paragraph spoils the first twenty minutes or so of the plot, but only really covers what is in the trailer. If you don’t want to have anything ruined then just stop reading and simply watch a film that deserves your time.

The story, in a nutshell, is about Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a single man in a dead-end handyman job with no semblance of positivity for his or anyone else’s life. His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies young due to a heart condition, forcing him to return home to Manchester, Massachusetts to sort out the funeral arrangements and look after his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). However, he soon finds out that he has been named the sole legal guardian for Patrick, forcing him to take on unwanted responsibilities and confront his past relationship with former wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

Affleck’s performance is well-balanced and measured. It’s a role that doesn’t call for any big movements, and the beauty of it is in the understated reactions to the huge changes going on in his life. He is almost dead to life itself, so his reaction to his brother’s death or his new found responsibilities are equally lacking in emotion. A worse actor would have ruined the film, yet he brings the whole story to life. Kenneth Lonergan has a lot to thank him for.

The music is brilliantly effective. Lesley Barr has worked wonders with her fantastic score, her first in five years since 2011’s The Moth Diaries. There’s a great interview with her over at The Muse, in an article by Bobby Finger, which is well worth reading. It’s a shame it was deemed ineligible available for an Academy Award nomination.

There has been a bubble of negativity towards Casey Affleck that surrounds his personal life. He has been accused of physical abuse against two women working alongside him on the film I’m Still Here – Cinematographer Magdalena Gorka and producer Amanda White. Affleck denied any wrongdoing but settled both claims out of court in 2010. 

Many sections of the press clearly think there’s a lot of truth in the stories. There seems to be a media-led unspoken rule about how much time people in the film industry must live in penance until the world forgives them again. Mel Gibson has seemingly served his time now following his controversies with his ex, Russian pianist Oksana Grigorieva, but it seems we are all permitted to enjoy Hacksaw Ridge, even though The Beaver was a brilliantly-bizarre turn that came at the wrong time of his career and has been largely ignored as a result.

Should we rise above the noise and embrace Casey Affleck? Well, the Academy certainly thinks so, as do the Golden Globes and BAFTA, all three of whom awarded him a Best Actor prize.

In isolation, there is no doubt that Affleck has brought to life a wonderful story and put in one of the best turns of his career. If you can live with and forget about the settled accusations, you’ll be rewarded.

Film review – 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2017)

To mark 2017’s International Women’s Day, I dropped into the cinema to catch 20th Century Women, a film with three powerful and independent women at the heart of its plot. A triple Bechdel Test passer, the film indeed avoids the usual cinematic tropes and instead explores how men are often defined by the women around them.

In 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) is a 15-year-old boy who is lacking a father figure in his life. His mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) has been long-single, but lives in a luxuriously huge house that she has converted into a sort of commune, in which lives a young female photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and an emotionally-detached carpenter and handyman William (Billy Crudup) who is renovating the house for her. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a girl with whom Jamie is unrequitedly besotted; she wishes for him to remain as a friend only whilst she has a series of never-seen male sexual partners.

Mike Mills has cultivated an intelligent film from his own original script, describing it as a love letter to the women who raised him.

It’s the sort of quirky and intimate story that can only be crafted from ones own experiences, with two fingers up to the notion that boys need fathers and girls need mothers in order to be raised properly. Interestingly, whilst there are innumberable films that explore fathers being thrust into the role of both mother and father figures to both boys and girls, the concept of a group of women creating a support network for growth of a teenage boy feels wholly fresh and quite important.

The standout performance in a solid cast comes from Greta Gerwig, who I have seen in several films previously and never been excessively impressed with. This time, she is absolutely mesmerising as a young woman who is recovering from cervical cancer. We learn that the cancer was probably linked to her mother’s Diethylstilbestrol (DES) drug treatment during her pregnancy. She has been effectively disowned by her guilt-stricken mother, unable to cope with the fact she feels responsible for causing her daughter’s cancer. As a role, this is no light task, and Gerwig is at times totally breathtaking in her performance.

It is strange that the boy whose life the story revolves around eventually turns out to be a supporting character to the three leads. It is a lovingly-created film that is as relatable to mothers as it is to sisters of brothers and as it is to sons. With characters this believable and brilliant performances across the board, this is a film well worth seeing.

Film review – Saludos Amigos (Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, 1942)

Saludos Amigos is a comporomise film. It’s a feature-length film, but only just; a mere 42 minutes and you’ll be done on this one. It’s a film that also only exists as a product of a good-will tour of Latin America, with Walt Disney acting as an ambassador for the USA to counter-act the popularity of the Nazi Party in certain countries when it was produced in the middle of World War Two. 

The film consists of four segments, all of which are a mixture between documentary films and short animated sequences. The animators, technicians and filmmakers were sent to countries such as Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil and observe what they saw, making sketches and jotting down any ideas they had. It is therefore a wonderful work that captures the beauty of the landscapes and cultures of 1940s Latin America, whilst also serving as a brilliant piece of political evidence when viewed some 75 years later.


Of the four segments, the standout is Aqualero  do Brasil, which introduces José Carioca – a well-dressed Brazilian green parrot who speaks fast and smokes a cigar. He befriends Donald Duck and shows him some cultural highlights of Rio de Janeiro, with a great sequence involving the samba.

José may have been a bit of a flash in the pan outside of Brazil but in his homeland he’s still as loved today as he ever has been, happily sitting alongside Donald and Mickey as the face of Disney.
It’s nothing that will wow modern audiences. It’s simply not as entertaining as the five animated features that proceeded it. It is, put simply, a quirk.

89th Academy Awards (2017) – Full list of winners

Best picture
WINNER: Moonlight
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea

Best director
WINNER: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)
Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Best original screenplay
WINNER: Manchester by the Sea
Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
20th Century Women

Best adapted screenplay
WINNER: Moonlight
Arrival
Fences
Hidden Figures
Lion

Best actor
WINNER: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
Denzel Washington (Fences)

Best actress
WINNER: Emma Stone (La La Land)
Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Ruth Negga (Loving)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)
Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Best supporting actor
WINNER: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
Dev Patel (Lion)
Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Best supporting actress
WINNER: Viola Davis (Fences)
Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

Best documentary
WINNER: OJ: Made in America
Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
13th

Best documentary short
WINNER: The White Helmets
4.1 Miles
Extremis
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland

Best animated feature
WINNER: Zootopia
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life As a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Best animated short
WINNER: Piper
Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Pearl

Best foreign language film
WINNER: The Salesman
Land of Mine
A Man Called Ove
Tanna
Toni Erdmann

Best live-action short
WINNER: Sing
Ennemis Interieurs
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights
Timecode

Best score
WINNER: La La Land
Jackie
Lion
Moonlight
Passengers

Best song
WINNER: City of Stars (La La Land)
Audition (La La Land)
Can’t Stop the Feeling! (Trolls)
The Empty Chair (Jim: The James Foley Story)
How Far I’ll Go (Moana)

Best makeup and hairstyling
WINNER: Suicide Squad
A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond

Best costume design
WINNER: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Allied
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie
La La Land

Best sound editing
WINNER: Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Sully

Best sound mixing
WINNER: Hacksaw Ridge
Arrival
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
13 Hours

Best production design
WINNER: La La Land
Arrival
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
Passengers

Best visual effects
WINNER: The Jungle Book
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best film editing
WINNER: Hacksaw Ridge
Arrival
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Moonlight

Best cinematography
WINNER: La La Land
Arrival
Lion
Moonlight
Silence