Alien Nation

November 29, 2012

Question: Which nation was not invited to the just-completed Olympic Games?

Answer: Alien Nation.

That’s the joke of a recent coming-attractions trailer for the new sci-fi thriller, which suggests the sense of humor this movie has about itself. The film isn’t as clever as the trailer.

But Alien Nation does present an intriguing new future. It’s set a few years from now, after a lost space ship has unloaded its passengers in Los Angeles. The humanoid creatures, known as “newcomers” (but unofficially called “slags”), have in many ways assimilated themselves into society; they’ve learned English, gotten jobs.

But most of them live in the ghetto, and are discriminated against. “Slag town” is a hotbed of violence; cop James Caan, a slag-basher to begin with, loses his partner in a dispute among the newcomers.

Caan is assigned a new partner, and of course it’s the first newcomer (Mandy Patinkin) in the L.A. detective force. With their testy relationship, the film slides into the buddy-cop movie formula, and delivers the expected banter and eventual grudging friendship. There’s nothing new about this angle of the movie, although both actors are watchable (the resourceful Patinkin is encased in the newcomers’ makeup, which includes a distended skull flecked with giraffe-like spots).

The underlying theme of Alien Nation is bigotry; like much science fiction, it deals with a social issue, in this case racial discrimination, in an oblique way. The rest of the plot revolves around drugs, a blue goo that drives the newcomers crazy. (Maybe the aliens belonged at the Olympics after all.) But the best thing about Rockne O’Bannon’s original screenplay is the newcomer culture that it describes.

The newcomers, for instance, have no interest in booze. But sour milk—a coupla belts of that stuff, and they’re blotto. Also, they can’t touch sea water, or they disintegrate. But they can breathe methane and not be affected, which is why they get jobs at refineries. And in their language, the name of James Caan’s character means “excrement cranium,” or… well, you can translate that one.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1988

It became a TV series for a while, and O’Bannon went on to create Farscape for TV.

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Yentl

December 27, 2010

Mandy & Babs: Yentl

Surprise! It’s not that bad. The prospect of Barbra Streisand wearing the hats of director, producer, star, and co-screenwriter, and not making a movie that was relentlessly overbearing and self-righteous, seemed slim indeed—to this admittedly biased reporter, anyway. The last time La Streisand wielded that kind of control (she was essentially, if not nominally, the auteur of that best-repressed 1976 A Star is Born) the results were shrill—in particular, her onscreen presence was more insufferable than ever. She appeared to seize the opportunity for unobstructed self-expression as a vehicle for venting her pet peeves about the press, the execs, the agents, and even her yammering hordes of fans.

That’s not what Yentl is about. It’s clearly a labor of love, and Streisand, perhaps sobered (one hesitates before using the word humbled) by the knowledge that there won’t be anybody else on which to blame this one, has displayed some restraint. On the level of performance, she still gives the Broadway musical-comedy line readings that are so wince-inducing. But she manages to tell the story coherently—if slowly—and she cannily lards the film with genuinely humorous sequences. So, the old girl-dressing-up-as-a-boy routine has laughs built into it; okay, but Streisand shows an intuition for knowing when to tap the comic vein (I’m thinking of the wordless love duets with Amy Irving’s misguided character, for instance). Less successful are the songs—which are sung by Streisand’s character exclusively, and which function as narration or interior monologue. Maybe if you like Streisand’s voice, you’ll like the songs. I wouldn’t know about that particular predilection. But the Michel Legrand-Marilyn & Alan Bergman tunes are a pretty bland lot.

And the songs necessarily pad out the running time, which is already long, and which, I’m afraid, seems long. The film’s denouement, for instance, takes up the last part of the movie and doesn’t seem as though it’s ever going to get fully explained; people keep repeating just what it is they’ll do in the much-altered future, etc. But if Streisand’s strengths as a director are not in the arena of rhythm, she does manage to capture a few moments—primarily people simply glancing at each other, thinking something about someone who probably, sadly, is not thinking the same thing about them. There’s a scene in which Yentl (Streisand), dressed up as a Yeshiva boy in order to gain an education (forbidden to women), is wrestling playfully with the older student (Mandy Patinkin) who has been her brotherly guide at school. She falls back on the ground, and there’s a close-up of her face against an obviously false patch of grass (we can assume from the Astroturf that they went to the special trouble of setting up this shot in a studio). As Patinkin looks down into her face, you can see that he’s starting to have some peculiar feelings about this beardless boy. Just then, we cut back to the close-up of Yentl, and just for a second you can see that the sunlight is starting to break over that face, and the false grass.

In ways that are not always explainable, a moment like this is very satisfying, and it can almost excuse the pokey expositional passages, the occasionally strident women’s lib asides, and the musical snoozes. But then I’m always more inclined to indulge artists when they’ve gambled everything on a single project, as Streisand has here. It would still be all right with me if she decided to retire from the screen, but a grudging “Mazeltov!” seems in order anyway.

First published in The Informer, December 1983

Perhaps this didn’t come through, but I’m not the biggest Streisand fan. Having seen A Star is Born at least three times in theaters for various high-school related reasons, I still have songs such as “Queen Bee” and “Hellacious Acres” pop up in my internal jukebox from time to time, and the experience has taken its toll. I doubt I will ever see this movie again, but it was a pleasant surprise, with actual warmth to it. Streisand has not retired from the screen.

“Hellacious Acres” on YouTube here.