Aliens: How Burke takes his coffee

Jim Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is a meticulously-assembled thrill ride, absolutely loaded with enriching details. My favourite of all of them is in the coffee scene.

It’s early in the film, and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has returned to normal life after her horrific experiences in Alien. In this scene, the smiling corporate functionary Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) comes to ask for her help. With him is Lt. Gorman (William Hope) of the Colonial Marines. They try to persuade Ripley to return to the alien planet.

There is so much going on in this scene. Watch it closely:

As the characters talk, the main physical action of the scene is Ripley making coffee for the two men. She pours out two mugs (which are transparent – a lovely, and useful, piece of prop design) and hands black coffee, unsweetened, to these two intruders.

Then she goes and pours for herself. She stirs her cup, which suggests she has added sweetener, but she hasn’t offered any to these unwelcome guests.

Lt. Gorman stands straight-backed, holding his mug politely and without interest. He rests against a table for a time, but doesn’t really move. At the end of the encounter he thanks Ripley for the coffee, even though he hasn’t touched it.

Burke, meanwhile, sits down, stands up, walks past Ripley, walks back, sits again, talking talking talking the whole time. It wasn’t until I watched Aliens on the big screen that I realised what he was doing. He’s putting milk or cream in his mug! I love it. My favourite detail in the whole film!

This is, first and foremost, just some blocking, something to get the characters moving around the space so the scene doesn’t seem static. But the film really makes it work. Burke taking his coffee white is a great character detail, suggesting he shies away from undiluted intensity, especially compared with Ripley, who is living in an unfiltered world at this stage of the film. Look also at how he does it: Burke stands up, walks past Ripley into her kitchen without asking, helps himself to her kitchen supplies, and then parks himself back where he was. He’s not showing overt dominance here, he’s just acting like someone who is used to being able to do exactly what he wants, when he wants – a much more subtle and dangerous way of manipulating a situation.

There are plenty of other great details in the scene that fire up red flags about Burke: he sits down without asking, and when he sits down, he starts touching something of Ripley’s (an item of clothing I think), playing with it with his fingers until Ripley snatches it away from him. When he’s up again at the end, having pushed Ripley into an outburst of emotion, he tells her “shhhh”, and puts his hand on her arm, and whispers that he hopes, as a favour, she’d think about it. This is why you never really trust Burke; the film is throwing lots of subtle signals, over and over again, that he will not respect your boundaries and he will smile while he takes advantage of you. 

It’s actually an interesting move in terms of filmmaking – surely the obvious thing to do is have Burke be trustworthy from the start, so his heel turn comes as more of a shock? I feel like Cameron’s made the right call here though, letting the only surprise be the sheer scale of Burke’s mendacity rather than trying to force the audience into going against their instincts and trusting a company man. It also means we never have to compromise Ripley’s character by having her trust someone and be betrayed.

Interesting also to compare to the way you are made to feel about the Marines. The stink of untrustworthiness that Burke carries with him doesn’t spread to them; they might be on the same mission, they might have the same goal in this very scene, but the audience comes out of this sequence with a cautious trust in them that Burke is never afforded.

And some of that storytelling work is done with the colour of a mug of coffee.

I love this film.

Pitch Perfect 2 (USA, 2015)

I loved Pitch Perfect. That, to my surprise and delight, was a good film.
This sequel is very much a sequel. It’s not as good. It’s not a good film.

There’s still some nice laughs and some good tunes, and although the studio pressure to turn this into a series of slumber-party classics is visible on-screen, it has its heart in the right place. So it feels kinda mean talking about all the reasons why it doesn’t work.

Instead I’ll just say the film certainly has some high points, particularly whenever David Cross or Keegan-Michael Key are on screen; but what a disappointment that in a film full of interesting women, the highlights are both men in cameo roles.

Gone Girl (USA, 2014)

Made it to the movies! A rare treat.

Gone Girl is a twisty mystery/psychological thriller. Wife disappears apparently kidnapped, but some things don’t add up, and husband has secrets. Director David Fincher underplays everything, including his directorial style – it felt to me like he was taking some of the moves from Zodiac (probably his masterpiece) and playing them more broadly, without the obsessive control that gave many sequences of that film their power.

Film has a big wrenching swerve in the middle, and becomes quite a different beast thereafter. Felt to me that the film overplayed its hand here, partly the fault of novel author Gillian Flynn adapting her own work. It had more endings than Return of the King and would be a better movie with almost the entire last half hour simply cut. I also didn’t find the emotional resonance that other viewers and critics have reported – it had disappeared too far into its own reality for that.

For all these grumbles, it is definitely entertaining and I’d unhesitatingly recommend it.

This review has SPOILERS from here…

The chief failure for me was the film’s attempt to set up some kind of moral equivalence between the sins of Nick and those of Amy, and to locate those within an interrogation of the idea of marriage. Those are some interesting questions but they don’t work if you make Amy a less realistic character than Hannibal Lecter. The revelation that Amy was alive and was planning everything – her insanely detailed lists and plans and their expected outcome of Nick’s execution – instantly framed the character as a nearly cartoonish villain, and I still enjoyed the film with that in mind, but you’d probably find an equally good examination of marriage in those Stepfather movies.

NZIFF: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden (USA, 2013)

Doco about a weird unsolved murder mystery in the 1930s Galapagos Islands. There were only a handful of people on the island of Floreana, all eccentric or mad to various degrees, locked in strange jealousies and rivalries. It’s a small cast of characters, none of whom are particularly endearing, all destined to be either victims or suspects.

It was a good watch, but like more than a few docos I’ve seen in the last few years, it was slooow. There was a tight, excellent 90-minute documentary film inside this 120-minute version, and I would much rather have seen that. But I can recommend it anyway – there is much in this account worthy of eyebrow-raising, and that is surely a good measure of a documentary’s worth.

NZIFF: Under The Skin (UK, 2013)

Scarlett Johansson is an otherworldly being who seduces Glaswegian men to their otherworldy doom. It’s shot, framed, told, and paced as an art film, but the narrative itself is fairly straightforward. (Which is good! That’s not a criticism!) There are many mysteries, mostly unexplained, although the shapes of answers are given. There’s a lot of improvised stuff where unsuspecting Glaswegian locals found themselves interacting with Johansson in seduction mode. The whole sequence on the beach is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen.

I loved it. Best thing i’ve seen in ages. But this is really not for everyone.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (USA, 2014)

This was a great action film in the mold of post-2000 action films – i.e. ludicrous stakes, lots of CGI, frenetic pace. I liked it a bunch. So some random notes:

* The film has Captain America’s name on it, but it’s a team film. Two black men, two women, and one traditional whitebread action guy. Sure, it’s that guy who’s on the poster, but this is definitely a good step forward. In related news, for heaven’s sake give Scarlett Johansen her own Black Widow film (if she wants it), she basically steals this one without even trying.

* Speaking of Black Widow – there’s a bit at the 3/4 mark when the big scary bad guy has Cap and Widow in his sights, and he says, “you get the man, I’ll get the woman”. And as soon as that happened and he went stomping after the brave resourceful woman, I sat a bit forward in my seat, because it’s the setup for one of the most cliche moves in action narrative.

To explain – as you move into your final sequence you need to set up the big confrontation – raise the stakes while you show your bad guy is scary as hell. The cliche way to do it? Aim your villain at the hero’s main ally. Put them in hospital, or in a coffin. Then the hero gets to be isolated and enraged and desperate all at once, ready for climax! (Or you aim your villain at the hero’s ladyfriend, and have them get killed or captured. “Fridged” you might say. Same deal.)

So in a movie called “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, the Winter Soldier (2nd part of title) could have a fight with Captain America (1st part of title) but he goes after another character instead? That character is toast, right? Is our super-resourceful Black Widow about to be stomped to put the villain over and set up a tearful Cap vs Winter finale?

SPOILER ALERT nope. Not even a little bit. It’s a small subversion, but it’s a pleasant one. This is a team movie, and the team get to work together the whole way through.

* Seeing comics writer/Winter Soldier creator Ed Brubaker in a scene was very distracting. He had good facial expressions.

* Marvel movies always have a little stinger scene at the end of the credits. They have one in the middle of the credits too. Well, this was the least rewarding end of credits scene yet. It was a loooong wait for something completely redundant. Don’t bother waiting for it.

* Anthony Mackie as the Falcon: yes, more of this sort of thing.

12 Years A Slave (USA/UK, 2013)

I am part of the film’s third audience, neither American White nor American Black, privileged to watch from outside, safely, to look upon the horrors and the injustice and whisper thanks that my people never devoured themselves with such madness, to observe with smug fascination at the broken ways of some other kind of people so different from my own. But the film doesn’t let me take this escape, for the unspeakable encompassing specificity of the American slave trade is an expression of something within, and Ejiofor and Nyong’o and Woodard and the rest don’t let me hide from the truth that I am complicit too, my veins are thickened with power, my people have embraced their strength and murmured that it could not be helped, and I sit white and healthy in what I call my property on a land my people once desired, a system of normalised exploitation replicating soundlessly around me, and just because my ancestors did not take a whip I cannot be at rest, it is in all of us, and it is in me and mine at strength, the sins are mine, and if I tell myself I am safe from this film I am lying, because it rebukes me too, it must rebuke me, it must teach me to hate a part of myself, but not just that, but also to love some part, some small part, that knows how justice might be found at any cost, that might be coaxed to hold on to justice, that might be tricked to fight for justice, for that is in my lineage too. This film is not safe, is not an instructive lesson in good morals for middle-class white people, it is not interested in me, but it comes for me anyway, and it looks at me, and it looks at me, and it looks.

American Hustle (USA, 2013)

First up: read Alasdair’s piece about this film, and how everyone’s talking about the actors and no-one’s talking about the plot. Good stuff.

This was headlining at the Roxy the same night Cal & I wanted to use our tickets to the Roxy, so we saw it. And it vexed me. On a different night I could imagine walking out of it. Not that I hated it, or found it upsetting or even boring, but there was something…

Excess – director David O. Russell drives this home right from the opening, an extended and lingering view of Christian Bale’s paunchy con-man applying a hair-piece. It’s not a subtle piece of filmmaking symbolism, this sequence, and I doubt it was intended to be. (See also: the nail polish.) Even here, the camera is restless, switching attention to Bale’s hands, looking at Bale then his reflection then back at Bale. Like the camera is anxious to get moving and is being forced, like the audience, to wait. And then it goes bezerk, two hours plus of feverish swirling camera, lots of closeups, lots of dense frames full of leering people. It goes for the voiceover method to fill in backstory but even here Russell acknowledges what he’s doing and loads it to excess, keeping the voiceover running and running and running until you’re sick of Bale’s voice and then giving other characters a chance to voiceover too and then finally ditching voiceover entirely for the bulk of the film. And Bradley Cooper’s FBI goon and Jennifer Lawrence’s messed-up wife get their characters stretched like bubble gum into the same excessive mold, Cooper’s especially, both saved from rolling over into caricature only by relentless, driving editing and the fundamental ability of both actors to ground what they’re doing.

Watching this film, for me, was an exercise in frustration. I kept feeling like the film was elbowing me out of the screen, knocking me back into my cinema seat, while it barrelled on to its next set piece. It felt like this film had been so caught up in filling itself with excess that it forgot to leave space for the viewer. There was no room for me inside it.

But even then, there was much to enjoy. Amy Adams, playing “sexy” (after building a career on winsome nose-wrinkling), but at the same time going raw, nearly method, letting her face go uncomposed or, I don’t know, unpretty, shameless, while the camera zooms in for a closeup. She was great to watch, and Cooper and Lawrence kinda kept me engaged just to see how they’d manage the high-wire of their OTT characters. And Jeremy Renner (as Alasdair notes, did you read that post I linked to, dooo it) was really sharp with his uneven principled but still sort-of-shady mayor. And Christian Bale –

– oh man, Christian Bale. Maybe it wasn’t David O. Russell who wasn’t giving me room, maybe it was Bale. Dude has screen presence to burn but when I watch him, I feel like there’s something fundamentally ungenerous about how he plays. Like he’d be happiest of all if his work never had an audience at all, the only viewer there’d ever be would be the cold lens of the camera. It’s a great performance, he holds the film together, he anchors it, and he communicates every beat of the tangled/poorly-explained plot through his performance choices. But it was like an ice cube in an empty glass. I wish the film was centred on Amy Adams instead.

Oh yeah, the plot, the story, good if you cared enough to pay attention, but you didn’t need to. The two pivot points (the one that gets Bale invited on a very unpleasant limo ride, and the one that leads to Cooper’s comeuppance) are both ostensibly surprises but I expect lots of people would see ’em coming from the moment they get set up. The point is the journey through the plot, not its ability to stay a step ahead of you.

High point of the film: the woozy, boozy counterpoint of Bale/Lawrence/Renner out for dinner intercut with Adams/Cooper out dancing. All the stylistic overkill just flowed. Funny, fun, and another reminder that it is a good thing to see Amy Adams dance.

So I dunno man. Did I like this movie? Yeah! Did I dislike this movie! Also yeah! It’ll get some Oscars I guess, and lots and lots of people seem to like it just fine. But, for a movie that’s all about drawing people in, I wish it had tried to do that to me.

Edwin: My Life As A Koont (2013, New Zealand)

Koont poster

Tuesday night we had a rare outing to the cinema, to see the local premiere of Edwin: My Life As A Koont, a new comedy feature by local low-budget impresario Jason Stutter (Tongan Ninja, Diagnosis: Death, Predicament).

It’s a mockumentary about the eponymous Edwin, who has a medical condition that makes him an asshole. He’s rude to everyone, basically. The film is about his mission to stage a benefit concert for those sharing his condition, helped along his way by Peter Jackson’s dropped cellphone with contact details for half of Hollywood.

And I liked it. I liked it more and more as it went along. The first act mostly just hits the beats you expect, making a lot of play out of the condition’s unfortunate name, and that was fine and dandy but I wasn’t exactly laughing out loud. But then, as it runs out of the obvious gags and starts leveraging its characters, the pic starts to grow in two directions – it gets more engaging and dramatic, and it gets funnier. By the end of the film, I was totally on-side with it, and had enjoyed at least a good half-dozen real bursts of laughter (clearly passing the Kermode test of comedy).

Both of these directions of growth leaned on the same thing: the leads. As Edwin, Bryce Campbell was just excellent. Endlessly watchable, entertainingly rude and obnoxious while finding the right notes of obliviousness and sympathy, and landing his big laugh lines with the timing of an old pro. Shockingly, he’s not an old pro – his IMDB page is remarkably sparse of on-camera appearances, and it’s absolutely delightful that he won the LA Comedy Festival’s Best Actor award for this role.

Playing opposite is Jessica Grace Smith (Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, Sione’s 2) as Edwin’s long-suffering girl Friday. And… (disclosure: Jess is family, and the reason we were at the premiere, so…) …she was great. Some sequences were played too broad for my taste but as the film progressed she carried more and more of the dramatic weight as foil and conscience for the film’s collection of mutants and misanthropes. The genuine chemistry between Campbell and Smith pretty much made the film work.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, I liked it. I mean, it’s far from perfect, like any shoestring film – Wellington locations do a lot of stunt double work, for example, and the sound mixing for some crucial hot tub exposition scenes is fatally limited. And there’re certainly a lot of dumb jokes that don’t work too well. But there are enough that do work to make me give this film a clear thumbs up. And to recommend you buy it.

I can recommend you buy it because it’s available for digital download, right now, at the very reasonable price of $2.95. Less than a cup of coffee. (MUCH less, these days.) I reckon it’s worth it.

(It might also have some more screenings at the Paramount in Wellington? Such is the rumour I have heard.)

Phil Dick Movie Kickstarter

Also on this Friday I wanna draw your attention to the kickstarter for “Radio Free Albemuth”, a new film adaptation of a Philip K Dick story. It’s had great reviews at film fests etc, they’re fundraising to get it on cinema screens.

Among the perks: every single backer gets a special edition of LEFT COAST, the roleplaying game of reality-bent science fiction writers, by fellow Wellingtonian and smart dude Steve Hickey.

So if you are interested in Phil Dick, science fiction, RPGs, films, or Steve Hickey, then this is the opportunity for you!

Five days left. It’s currently at 72K against its 85K goal. SWEET.

Check it out