REVIEW: Alien: Covenant

13 05 2017

Comparisons are inevitable when it comes to long-standing movie franchises, particularly when they tell standalone stories. More than, less than, greater than, better than … “Alien: Covenant” is all over the map as it relates to the other films in the series, particularly the 1979 original and Ridley Scott’s last outing with the xenomorphs, 2012’s “Prometheus.”

The film boasts two obvious strengths. The first and most obvious is its fidelity to the body horror of “Alien,” moving away from the more restrained suspense and action-style trappings of its predecessor. “Alien: Covenant” is unabashedly trying to scare us, and it works – especially given the airborne alien pathogen that quickly infects the Covenant crew. You know, in case the tactile terror of the usual entry wasn’t frightening enough.

Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper also endow the film with a keen sense of cosmological curiosity. “Prometheus” dabbled in issues of faith through the character of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a devout Christian forced to confront her notions of God in the wake of both scientific discoveries and the cruelty of nature. Though there’s one overtly religious character in “Alien: Covenant,” Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram, the existential questions are more deeply rooted in the story than just one character’s experience. The film locates something more terrifying than chest-bursting extraterrestrial life: artificial intelligence with a God complex and an intent to create (and thus destroy).

*mild spoilers after the break – continue at your own risk*

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REVIEW: Entertainment

20 02 2016

EntertainmentRick Alverson’s “Entertainment” definitely has a lot to say, make no mistake. It’s nice to see a film titled after a concept that engages deeply with that idea.

Alverson sets up an interesting dialectic between two touring performers, a mime played by Tye Sheridan and a comedian played by Gregg Turkington. The former opens each show, deftly calibrating his moves to respond to the crowd and givng them their money’s worth. The latter, however, self-consciously stumbles his way through a stand-up routine that might have killed were it delivered in 1984. When it starts to bomb, the comedian often fires back at the crowd in seeming self-sabotage.

Perhaps this is the very tension between entertainment and art playing itself out in allegorical form. One comforts the audience while the other confronts them. One is harmless fun; the other, a provocative thorn. Alverson’s film definitely takes the form of the comedian, never easily indulging the whims of easy crowd-pleasing in its 100 minutes.

But as “Entertainment” wore on, the film started to feel thin on ideas. Yes, there is value in watching Turkington’s comedian slowly grow more and more agitated with audiences and wrestle with his own performance. Yet Alverson might have incited that same intellectual response from a short film, one that more tersely conveys the same ideas. Heck, it could have even wrestled with a new set of ideas about what people look for in a video of that length. B-2stars





REVIEW: The Sacrament

6 07 2014

The SacramentIt’s hard to think of any stylistic development of the past five years with quite the impact of found footage.  Once “Paranormal Activity” arrived out of nowhere with a resounding bang, it seemed like its DIY cinema verité aesthetic could be found wherever you looked.  From cop films (“End of Watch“) to superhero movies (“Chronicle“) and even teen party flicks (“Project X“), everyone was doing it – perhaps as a cost-cutting measure, or maybe just to fall in line with the newest trend.

Yet very few of these movies have actually committed to the style as the main vehicle for storytelling.  Ti West, on the other hand, employs it as more than a half-hearted gimmick in “The Sacrament.”  Under his direction, the camera becomes our eyes and ears, our only means of accessing the events of the narrative.  West’s dedication pays off in spades as his film constitutes one of the most absorbing and frightening experiences of the year.

I do wish West hadn’t been quite so beholden to recreating the Jonestown mass sacrifice (that’s the one with the Kool-Aid) since his command the technique creates a truly ominous atmosphere.  He doesn’t entirely recreate the famous cult settlement, but West does little more than essentially plant it in the present day.

The camera through which we experience “The Sacrament” comes courtesy of Vice reporters Jake and Sam (Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen), who join colleague Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as he goes to check the safety of his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) at the mysterious commune Eden Parish.  The film begins with their extended journalistically-oriented overview of the group’s calm facade lasting nearly 45 minutes … but then the Vice team more or less causes the collapse of the Parish’s fragile community.

West, in the final hour, lets loose into an absolutely nightmarish terror.  “The Sacrament” quickly and efficiently shows the allure of a charismatic leader like Eden Parish’s “Father” (Gene Jones) and how quickly he can self-destruct the edifice he has built.  It’s not redefining the subgenre of cult horror, but West crafts one scarily good movie that ought to give anyone a potent fright.  B+3stars