ALIENS (1986)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Monster Violence, and for Language

Directed by: James Cameron

Written by: James Cameron

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, William Hope, Jenette Goldstein & Al Matthews

With ALIEN being a giant success, a sequel was inevitable. Where to take the property though and who could possibly pick up the reigns after Ridley Scott left his distinct mark on the series? While Scott’s ALIEN focused on scares, James Cameron’s ALIENS was all about action. As you might have guessed from its title, there are many Xenomorphs in this film. ALIENS is a sequel done right in that it builds off the original film to take the series in bold new directions, all while constantly upping its game. The end result is not only one of the best sequels in film history, but also one of the best sci-fi action movies to ever grace the silver screen.

As the sole survivor of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been in hypersleep for 57 long years. Rescued from the cold recesses of space by the same company that screwed her over in the first place, Ripley finds that (unsurprisingly) no one believes her tales of an acid-bleeding, long-headed, two-mouthed, bug-like monster. In fact, the planet where the Nostromo originally landed is now a site for colonization. When the colony goes dead quiet, Ripley is called in as a consultant for a bunch of space marines assigned to investigate the oddly silent location. When they arrive, Ripley and the space marines discover hundreds of vicious Xenomorphs. In a race against a ticking clock, they must use their heads and work together to escape the planet.

In my ALIEN review, I complained about how stupid most of that film’s characters were and how they essentially boiled down to slasher victims in space. ALIENS remedies this issue by having a colorful group of characters who make smart choices and come off as instantly likable. While I didn’t care about most of the crew members dying in the first film, the deaths in this sequel make the viewer sad to see another beloved space marine bite the dust. Yes, Ripley is a bad-ass and really gets a lot of room to shine in this second installment. This is especially true during the final 30 minutes that have her saving the day on a deadly solo mission. However, the supporting cast is stellar this time around.

The biggest stand-out of the space marines is Lance Henriksen as android Bishop. While Ian Holm was just plain creepy as the first film’s android, Henriksen manages to be both creepy and charming at the same time. First time viewers, won’t know where his allegiances fully lie and Cameron wisely inserts scenes that could be taken two completely different ways. As other notable space marines, Michael Biehn is charismatic as Hicks (also serving as a possible love-interest for Ripley), Bill Paxton is hilarious as grunt Hudson (uttering one of the most iconic lines in an action movie ever), and Jenette Goldstein is a total bad-ass as Vasquez.

Paul Reiser plays corporate scumbag Carter Burke and owns his transformation from annoying sleazeball (at first) to downright despicable asshole (by his final scene). ALIENS also seemingly does the impossible by bringing in a little kid and not making them annoying in every single second that they’re on the screen. This child-in-danger comes in Carrie Henn as Newt. Henn had no previous acting experience before this film, which makes her performance that much more impressive. She nails the role of this young survivor and has become a fan favorite over the decades, all while providing a reason for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley to develop instant motherly protection.

James Cameron’s ALIENS is much more of an action movie than a scarefest, but Cameron keeps everything in tact that made the first movie great. This include the freaky-looking planet design, the insect-like monsters, and the sense of constant danger around every corner. Even though there are more characters this time around and they’re heavily armed, that just means there’s more people stuck in the same heart-pounding situation and their ammo will eventually run out. An adrenaline-pumping chase scene through a series of ventilation shafts is every bit as claustrophobic as the best jump scare from the first film, but this time there are aliens coming from all directions and bullets flying everywhere.

Cameron’s sequel further builds on the creatures’ biology, nesting habits, and introduces a Queen Alien to the series (all those eggs have to be coming from somewhere). This towering creature is one of the most intimidating monsters to ever hit the big screen. Think a regular Xenomorph times a hundred and much, much bigger. This makes for one of the greatest human vs. alien battles in the finale too. This isn’t to negate the film’s quieter, more effective moments, because there are a few twists that naturally built and progressively up the stakes in a believable way.

Throughout his career, James Cameron has directed two of the best sequels of all-time: TERMINATOR 2 and this film. ALIENS is not only a perfect example of how to make a stellar second installment that outdoes the original, but it’s also one of the best science-fiction action hybrids to ever grace the silver screen. Adrenaline-pumping action, colorful characters (who the viewer is sad to see die), unexpected plot turns, high stakes that progressively become higher, and an already great mythos evolving are just some of the reasons why this sequel is so phenomenal! ALIENS is entertainment at its biggest and best!

Grade: A+

ALIEN (1979)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm & Yaphet Kotto

ALIEN was one of the first science-fiction horror films to be taken seriously in film. This was basically a B-movie monster story executed with A-grade talent and scares. The film launched the career of a budding Ridley Scott into the mainstream, delivered one of the best female characters to ever grace the silver screen, and spawned a movie franchise that has lasted for decades. Though this film relies on a simple story and it’s not without a few flaws, ALIEN is essential viewing for anybody who loves movies!

The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are awakened from hypersleep by a distress signal on a nearby planet. According to a clause in their work contracts, the crew must investigate and rescue anybody in distress on their way home. What appears to be a rescue mission turns into something out of a nightmare because the planet is quiet, mist-covered, and downright spooky. When one of the crew encounters an odd-looking egg and, being an idiot, bends down to take a closer look, he winds up with a living organism hugging his face. The crew, being idiots, let the possibly contaminated crew member back on board and soon enough, there’s a full-fledged, blood-thirsty alien running around the ship. It’s up to warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to remedy the deadly blunders of her fellow crew members.

You might have noticed ALIEN’s single problem from my plot synopsis. The spaceship is populated by characters who do really stupid things and their dumb decisions further the story along. Don’t get me wrong. ALIEN is a fantastic movie, but there are eye-rolling lapses in judgment that seem to slide purely because the story needs them to. The whole film hinges on a dumbass looking into an egg and then another moron letting that dumbass back onto the spaceship. I can let both of those stupid decisions slide, but I can’t stand Harry Dean Stanton’s redneck wandering around by himself because the script demands it. Also, The film’s most egregious example of stupid decisions has one sobbing character refusing to get out of the alien’s way, thus resulting in two deaths. It’s been nearly 20 years since I first saw ALIEN and this moment still seems stupid to me.

With my complaints out of the way, let me dive into ALIEN’s great qualities and there are plenty to be praised! The first one is Sigourney Weaver’s protagonist Ripley. She’s a strong heroine who kicks ass and doesn’t take crap from any other crew member on the ship. She easily seems like the most sensible person of the bunch and we root for her to live from her first appearance. Weaver is basically playing a slasher final girl on a spaceship and does this with a bad-ass persona. Another performance worth praising is Ian Holm as creepy scientist Bishop. You know something isn’t right about him from his first interaction and though his most memorable scene has already been spoiled by plenty of people throughout the decades, Holm still remains unnerving in the role.

What’s most impressive about ALIEN is how much it accomplished with simple technology and effects capabilities of its time. Ridley Scott employed everyday appliances like rubber gloves (for the movement inside the egg), puppets (for the early born alien), milk (for Android’s blood), various animal guts (for pieces of the facehugger), and miniatures/models (for spaceships and planets). However, none of that is what appears on the screen. What we see is another world, freaky organisms, and visceral gore. ALIEN easily has the best effects to come out of the 1970s!

The spectacular effects come to a head when talking about the film’s titular monster. This is a creature feature after all and a lot of the scares hinge on the creature. Using an unforgettable design by H.R. Giger, the Xenomorph is easily one of the greatest monsters to be brought to life by a man in a suit. That man, Bolaji Badejo, was unnaturally skinny and very tall. This brought an eerie effect to the monster and Scott purposely picked Badejo because he didn’t want the eye to naturally think that a person could possibly be portraying the long-headed, two-mouthed Xenomorph. This monster still freaks me out in certain scenes, the biggest of which is easily Dallas (Tom Skeritt) hunting it in the ship’s air ducts. That entire sequence is masterfully executed and delivers one of the best jump scares in cinema history.

While later entries in the series would take a more action-based approach to the material, ALIEN is like a slasher film in space that features a monster and haunted house scares. It’s a nearly perfect combination of science fiction and horror, with a handful of stupid character decisions marking the film’s only flaws. The monster is iconic. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is one of the best heroines to ever hit the silver screen. The special effects still look amazing. The scares are effective. The filmmaking is masterful. Simply put, ALIEN is one of the best creature features ever!

Grade: A

FANBOYS (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Pervasive Crude and Sexual Material, Language and Drug Content

Directed by: Kyle Newman

Written by: Ernest Cline & Adam F. Goldberg

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Kristen Bell, David Denman, Christopher McDonald, Ethan Suplee & Seth Rogen

I am a STAR WARS fan. I had the toys growing up (including a Darth Maul inflatable chair), watched the movies over and over, went to STAR WARS scout camp, and am still geeking out over new installments in the saga. FANBOYS is a comedy that is tailor-made for STAR WARS fans. If you don’t like or aren’t familiar with the series in any way, shape or form, you will probably not dig this movie nearly as much as someone who loves STAR WARS. FANBOYS is a fun, goofy and (at points) oddly heartwarming little road trip film for STAR WARS junkies.

The year is 1998 and four friends have unexpectedly reunited at a Halloween party. Eric (Sam Huntington) is trying to grow up and take care of his father’s car dealership business, while Hutch (Dan Fogler) lives in his mother’s garage, Windows (Jay Baruchel) obsesses over his unseen internet girlfriend, and Linus (Chris Marquette) still holds a long-time grudge against Eric. When Eric is informed that Linus is dying of cancer and has four months to live, he tries to make amends with his former best friend by enacting a plan they’ve had since childhood: breaking into Skywalker Ranch and stealing the work print of STAR WARS Episode I. Their plan is crazy and the guys will encounter lots of wacky scenarios on their journey, all while countless STAR WARS references fly at the screen!

The casting of the four childhood friends is spot-on. Sam Huntington (whose biggest roles appear to have been Jimmy in SUPERMAN RETURNS and Mimi-Siku in JUNGLE 2 JUNGLE) stars as Eric, the straight-man of the group. While most of the film is focused on laughter and movie-related hijinks, Huntington shares an effectively emotional story arc with Chris Marquette’s Linus. Marquette and Huntington’s final scene together beautifully summarizes friendship and fanboy culture in a nutshell, complete with why people love being geeks so much and how movies can bring people together. As Hutch, Dan Fogler is allowed to go over-the-top in his obnoxiousness and mostly thrives in getting laughs. Some of his bits fall flat, but most of them hit right on target…similar to how Luke destroyed the Death Star in Episode IV.

Jay Baruchel plays a geeky nerd character that he’s mostly been typecast as, but receives his own enjoyable story arc and has hands-down one of the most awkwardly funny scenes in the entire film. Kristen Bell also makes a strong impression as Zoe, a STAR WARS fangirl who plays a significantly bigger role during the second half. Keep your eyes peeled for lots of cameos. A few STAR WARS cast members pop up and so do many familiar comedic faces. My favorite moments come from three different characters played by Seth Rogen and a brief snippet from Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes. The former is hilarious in his multiple moments, while the latter is hysterically raunchy in his one-minute scene.

FANBOYS milks its 90s setting for nostalgia and retro jokes. There’s the familiar feeling of seeing Mario Kart played on Nintendo 64, having to hook up a phone line to a computer to access the internet, and a kick-ass soundtrack of 90s hits that’s likely to bring back good memories for 90s kids and Generation Y. FANBOYS also pokes fun at how insanely excited people were for Episode I and how much disappointment was around the corner in that movie later being considered the worst Episode. One bit that involves a tattoo of Jar-Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker is hilarious and the film’s closing line is sure to evoke laughter.

This film is packed to the brim with STAR WARS references, which have been further aided by George Lucas allowing the director to use the saga’s original sound effects. While a police chase ending in a Darth Vader reference is obvious and on-the-nose, other smaller nods stick out too. There are tidbits of STAR WARS trivia that had me scratching my head and saying “Dammit! I used to know this!” Also, there’s a hilarious Darth Maul reference that I completely missed the first time I saw this movie and I immediately caught this time around.

I’m not going to claim that FANBOYS is a perfect film, because the storytelling occasionally seems a tad rushed. While I really enjoy the uplifting emotional arc involving four friends going out for one last adventure, there are moments where it feels shoe-horned in. This could be directly blamed on a troubled production path that had Harvey Weinstein (a.k.a. Harvey Scissorhands) desperate to shred the film to bits, at one point removing the heartwarming subplot entirely and with it, the characters’ main motivation. Being given only 36 hours to assemble a final cut and re-edit the emotional scenes back in, I feel that director Kyle Newman did a damn fine job with this film. FANBOYS is sure to please fans of the STAR WARS saga. If you enjoy STAR WARS, then I highly recommend that you check out FANBOYS for laughs, heart, and undying nostalgia.

Grade: B

THE PROMISE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material including War Atrocities, Violence and Disturbing Images, and for some Sexuality

Directed by: Terry George

Written by: Terry George & Robin Swicord

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Gimenez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rade Serbedzija & James Cromwell

THE PROMISE is the first major big-budget film to tell the story of the Armenian Genocide. This atrocity was committed by the Turkish government and led to the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians. For numerous mind-boggling reasons, there are many Armenian Genocide deniers in this world and they did not want this movie to be made. Just look at the film’s current IMDB rating and where a majority of the 1-star votes are coming from (Turkey). Taken on its own cinematic merits, THE PROMISE is a deeply emotional, powerful historical epic. The film is not without some problems, but remains a worthwhile experience all the same.

Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is an Armenian who’s using his engagement dowry to become a doctor. In the grand city of Constantinople, Mikael develops a crush on Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian. The problem is that Mikael is currently engaged and Ana already has a boyfriend in American news reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale). The political climate begins to change in Constantinople though and World War I is rising. Soon, Turks begin to savagely arrest/kill Armenians, using the war as a cover to systematically wipe the Armenian people off the earth. Mikael, Ana, and Chris find themselves caught in the middle of this mass tragedy.

THE PROMISE functions as two different movies. On the one hand, it’s a very effective history lesson about the Armenian Genocide. Many historians have already praised this film for its accuracy and there’s something impressive about that alone. Director/writer Terry George previously directed a powerful genocide drama in HOTEL RWANDA and was a great choice to make another drama about one of the first modern genocides. This film shows the audience just enough for them to realize what is happening to the Armenian people and to what extent. We don’t need to see countless prisoner camps, lots of massacres, and many death marches into the desert. Single moments that surmise each of these horrific factors go a long way and the script wisely doesn’t exploit its sensitive subject matter.

On the other hand, THE PROMISE also tells the story of a love-triangle that happens to take place during the Armenian Genocide. Romance and passion drive the three main characters forward. One might argue that, at certain points, this decently-constructed love story moves things along more than the actual real-life tragedy occurring in the background. This doesn’t happen a lot, but there are corny clichés that occasionally make their way into the mix. The war-based love story angle works, but to a far lesser extent than the fact-based Armenian Genocide drama that’s also being told. The epitome of this complaint comes in one needlessly sad scene that seems to be thrown in because plenty of other historical romances also have this plot point.

Oscar Isaac, one of the best rising actors of his generation, plays Mikael with heartbreaking sincerity. There isn’t a single emotion from him that doesn’t feel genuine, even when the story thrusts him into the path of clichés. Christian Bale plays Chris Myers, a fictional character based on a few journalists that covered the Armenian Genocide. The moments in which Myers risks his life to get the atrocious news to the public are heart-pounding to watch. Still, Bale doesn’t have much believable chemistry with the lovely Charlotte Le Bon (who also starred in last year’s underrated historical thriller ANTHROPOID). Le Bon’s Ana is more of a glorified supporting character in the proceedings. She drives the love-story forward, but Bale and Isaac are equal important in both stories.

THE PROMISE’s overall look feels epic. The story spans across various locations and the cinematography is beautiful. With a 90 million dollar budget, it’s clear that Terry Jones threw every penny he had at the screen. It’s upsetting that this film won’t perform better at the box office, because it wasn’t put out during the Oscar-friendly awards season and instead is being released in April (to coincide with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide’s first recorded date). The music in this film is powerful too, but never overtakes the emotion being brought to the screen by the performances and the writing. High production values really help cement this story’s large scope and believable visuals.

THE PROMISE isn’t likely to garner the same amount of critical acclaim and financial success that HOTEL RWANDA or other WWI/WWII dramas have received. The film very much succeeds at being a tragic drama about the Armenian Genocide, but occasionally shoots itself in the foot with the clichéd love triangle plot. THE PROMISE’s performances, visuals, music, and a majority of scenes are great in many respects. However, those darn clichés and occasional missteps into corniness keep the entire film from reaching its full potential. Even with those flaws, THE PROMISE is definitely worth a watch. Just be prepared to feel very depressed afterwards, because World War I also had a Holocaust.

Grade: B+

PHOENIX FORGOTTEN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Terror, Peril and some Language

Directed by: Justin Barber

Written by: Justin Barber & T.S. Nowlin

Starring: Chelsea Lopez, Florence Hartigan, Justin Matthews & Luke Spencer Roberts

If you type the words “found footage horror short” into YouTube’s search bar, over 600,000 videos will appear. Some of these shorts are good and others are utter garbage, but they only consume mere minutes of your time and don’t cost a penny to view. I guarantee that watching any of these shorts is more satisfying than sitting through PHOENIX FORGOTTEN. This film feels like a competent YouTube short was stretched to fit a feature-length running time. The viewer must endure an hour of faux documentary build-up to watch 20 decent minutes that would have been far more satisfying on their own. PHOENIX FORGOTTEN isn’t even the worst found footage alien movie I’ve sat through, but it still isn’t worth your valuable time or hard-earned cash.

Sophie Bishop (Florence Hartigan) is desperately trying to uncover the mystery behind her brother’s decades-old disappearance. A few nights before her brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) went missing, the Phoenix Lights phenomenon occurred and locals believed it might be extraterrestrial activity. Josh rounded up a gal pal Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and his best friend Mark (Justin Matthews) to aid him in filming a documentary about the incident. Curious to discover more about the strange lights, the three teenagers drove to an isolated canyon and were never seen again. You can probably guess how this film plays out. There’s found footage, interviews, loud noises, and flashing lights.

The structure of PHOENIX FORGOTTEN plays like a documentary that’s been interspersed with found footage. This approach was executed to far greater success in 2012’s underrated eco-horror flick THE BAY and was originally the planned concept of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT before it premiered. PHOENIX FORGOTTEN executes this mockumentary style to the convincing effect of an episode from a missing person’s TV show, a lesser episode that starts off okay and then becomes a total bore.

The combination of fake interviews, archive news footage, and found footage seemingly jive well for about 15 minutes or so. The problem is that things keep going…and going…and going, but nothing’s really happening. We all know how this film will play out, because we’ve all seen handheld horror flicks before. We just want to get to the UFOs and alien shenanigans, but there’s barely any of the former (the last 15 minutes) and none of the latter. To be fair though, over an hour of bland build-up would make just about anything seem unsatisfying…even if the aliens were probing these kids in graphic detail and we never see anything like that occur in this film.

What does occur are two eye-rollingly convenient plot twists that bring the viewer to most film’s best part: the final act. PHOENIX FORGOTTEN’s less-is-more final 20 minutes would probably hold up as a short film. Sadly, they occur after an hour of filler that noticeably weights them down. As a result, the last act feels like a mini-BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that happens to have glowing lights (a UFO) and a couple of neat effects (which is likely were most of the budget went). To add insult to injury, the final titles echo 2012’s THE DEVIL INSIDE and that was one of the worst found footage films to ever hit the big screen.

PHOENIX FORGOTTEN would have been far better if its final 20-minutes surfaced on YouTube as an effective little short film. Instead, this movie packs an hour of mockumentary build-up onto a pay-off that feels weak. If this film had stuck strictly to the perspective of the three teenagers, which is what the deliberately misleading marketing implied, then this might be a hidden gem of a horror flick. As it stands, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is yet another underwhelming, disappointing addition to the already overcrowded list of crappy found footage horror flicks. It’s marginally better than Oren Peli’s AREA 51 (the worst found footage alien movie I’ve sat through), but ten multiplied by zero is still zero. If you want solid alien found footage horror, check out the final segment of V/H/S/2 and forget about PHOENIX FORGOTTEN.

Grade: D+