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: Sausage Party

30 08 2016

Sausage Party” may begin with an amusing ’90s Disney-esque opening ditty – with help from “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty & The Beast” composer Alan Menken, to boot – but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have far more than obvious parody. (Besides, 1999’s adult animated “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” took care of that pretty well.) Using a supermarket as a microcosmic playground for the world, the sly writing/producing team continue their thematic exploration of pressing social and existential issues.

That’s not a joke, and yes, “continue” means that this thread has been present in their past work. 2013’s “This Is The End” was, among many things, a fascinating exploration of how public figures come to deal with their mortality and the afterlife in the face of a seemingly inevitable apocalypse. Playing a lightly fictionalized version of himself, Rogen and his celebrity comrades united to satirize the lack of self-awareness among self-important actors.

Much of that same gang reunites for “Sausage Party” to play the voices of processed or packaged foods ready for consumption. The elaborate ritual laid out in the opening song deludes them into thinking “the gods” have destined them for some kind of heaven once placed in the grocery cart. But once a returned jar of honey mustard offers a chilling vision of what lies beyond the automatic doors, hot dog Frank (Rogen) and his sweetheart bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) bring it upon themselves to discover the truth. Neither realizes the answer will shake up everything they thought they knew about life after purchase – provided such a thing even exists.

Along the way, they journey with Kareem the lavash (David Krumholtz) and Sammy the bagel (Edward Norton) and start to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. They bump into Firewater (Bill Hader), a Native American liquor bottle, and bump up against the complications of colonial displacement of indigenous peoples. Rogen and Goldberg, along with “The Night Before” co-writers Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, take advantage of how ripe animated films are ripe for social commentary given how much an audience has to project humanity onto the objects.

Oh, and all the food eventually comes together in a raucous orgy. Just as the apocalyptic monster in “This Is The End” had disturbingly large anatomy, the “Sausage Party” participants’ sexual drive serves as an outsized reminder that Rogen and Goldberg come from a place of absurdity, imagination and crass humor above all else. Don’t take any of this too seriously, their flourishes seem to cry out, because the authors themselves don’t. They know their places as comedians and entertainers above all else, although Rogen might soon vault to Mel Brooks status for a new generation. The combination of his boundary-pushing comedy with trenchant, socially attuned subject matter certainly makes him an obvious contender to assume the vanguard. (Without saying too much, try not to think of “Blazing Saddles” during the finale.) B+3stars





REVIEW: Aloha

19 06 2015

Aloha posterResponding to the reactions to a film in a review is something I generally frown upon; however, I am willing to make an exception in the case of “Aloha.”  Before Sony could release any trailers or marketing materials, studio head Amy Pascal’s scathing comments about Cameron Crowe’s film hit the Internet and sealed its fate.  The film said the “goodbye” aloha before it could say the “hello” aloha.  And then, once the critics finally got ahold of the final product, the nail was in the coffin.

So when I finally got around to seeing “Aloha,” I came with unavoidably low expectations.  I did not seek to answer the question of whether it was good or bad; I just needed to know how bad.  Watching a film in that mindset makes for an entirely different experience, akin to being a child in a doctor’s office waiting for a shot with eyes clenched shut.  You know the pain will come soon but are clueless as to when.

I kept waiting for “Aloha” to come apart at the seams.  Maybe the relationship between paramilitary contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and his spunky Air Force escort Allison Ng (Emma Stone, unconvincingly playing part-Asian) would just become a little too far-fetched.  Or perhaps Brian would wreck the marriage of his ex-flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), leaving the life she built with her kids and husband Woody (John Krasinski) in shambles and destroying all sympathy for the characters.  Any number of plot points, from the relations with native Hawaiian tribes to an odd space mission, could easily have gone south.

Yet, against the odds, “Aloha” manages to survive its shortcomings and remain a mostly enjoyable time at the movies.  Sure, the script could have benefitted from some retooled dialogue, a few reordered or rewritten scenes for the sake of clarity, and a narrower narrative scope.  As is, though, Crowe has the basis for a charming – but not disarming – romance with a superfluous side helping of story critiquing the military-industrial complex.

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F.I.L.M of the Week (April 9, 2015)

9 04 2015

As I Lay DyingWith each passing year, it has become harder and harder not to have an opinion about the multi-hyphenate artist James Franco.  Is he a Renaissance man for our time, a master of many artistic trade?  Or is he merely an Andy Warhol, signing off on other people’s work to make it more commercially viable?  Or perhaps, is he just insane?

After the strange back-to-back pairing of “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Spring Breakers” in early 2013, I was unsure of where to place Franco on the spectrum of genius and lunatic.  Then, I had the opportunity to hear him speak in an intimate setting at the Cannes Film Festival after seeing his “As I Lay Dying” play in Un Certain Regard (and waiting many long hours to do so), and I made up my mind.  I really think he’s a true artistic talent.

Admittedly, I have not read the William Faulkner novel on which the film is based.  And after seeing the movie, I still do not think I could provide a summary of the events that occurred and somehow make it resemble a plot.  Nonetheless, Franco turns Faulkner’s notoriously difficult prose into a fittingly challenging art film.  By finding a visual match for the author’s words, his take on “As I Lay Dying” makes for a deserving selection for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The novel, notoriously, features multiple narrators, and Franco preserves that aspect by filming those direct addresses in striking close-ups.  But such is a rather predictable choice for adapting the book for the screen, so Franco goes further and really utilizes a unique technique: split screen.  The multiple images flooding the visual field proves an effective, engaging tool to represent narrative fragmentation.  At times, the images complement each other; sometimes, they clash.  “As I Lay Dying” is Malick imagery meets Soviet montage experiments, all wrapped up in the form of a gallery installation.

This makes the story somewhat hard to follow, although I get the sense that few read Faulkner for clarity like a light beach read.  Still, I enjoyed the film on a moment by moment basis, appreciating each scene as it came.  Franco went out on a limb and really experimented with “As I Lay Dying,” a truly bold choice given the familiarity that many have with the text.  He mostly succeeds, and even when a directorial decision falls flat, it’s hard to fault the ambition behind it.  I get the feeling, too, that he might have laid the groundwork for someone to come along and create a true master work with his split screen technique.

 

 





REVIEW: This Is The End

13 06 2013

Now that I know the kind of deep analyses I can write on films, I’ve grown cautious of over-intellectualizing.  It’s like learning to reign in a superpower; just because you can use it doesn’t mean that you always should.  And, often times, I feel like many film reviewers and critics pull meanings out of films that might not even be there.

This Is The End” poses quite a conundrum for me.  I’m weary to read into it too much, but I think the apocalyptic comedy could be subversively smart.  Or it’s just another culturally-savvy product of the Apatow gang (although Judd himself had no part of this film).  Whichever it is, however, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s feature-length directorial debut is an outlandishly good time that packs some killer laughs.

I go back and forth on whether Rogen and pals are brilliant minds … or just stoned out of those same minds.  The fact that stars like Rogen, James Franco, and Jonah Hill are playing themselves certainly seems to indicate a certain level of self-reflexivity.  After all, no one would mistake “This Is The End” for a documentary as everyone seems to be playing an exaggerated version of themselves: Rogen the jovial teddy bear, Franco the off-kilter artiste, and Hill the slightly fruity sass-pot.

But then again, Rogen and Goldberg could easily have just been thinking of a way to make the ultimate end of the world comedy (lest we forget, there has already been the morose “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World“).  When it came time for their silver bullet, perhaps the idea popped into their head that rather than characters, the film should feature real celebrities.  Indeed, there are times that the real comedians feel a little gimmicky.  I’m not going to complain, however, so long as I get to hear Rogen and Franco weigh the relative merits of “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.”

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REVIEW: Your Highness

11 10 2011

OK, don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy immature humor.  And I can be very amused and moved by James Franco.  And I love Danny McBride.  If you’ve read this site at all in the past year, then you know that I REALLY love Natalie Portman.  But man, oh man, did I hate “Your Highness!”

Every aspect of this movie reeks of an imbecilic juvenility, from the ridiculous high-concept to its poor execution.  The whole idea of the movie seems to have stemmed from McBride watching “A Knight’s Tale” when he was just a little too baked.  I’m sure with enough marijuana in your system, the idea of combining the raunchy comedy with the medieval epic sounded awesome.  Heck, it even sounded kind of funny in a synopsis and in a trailer.

But somewhere between McBride’s brain and my laptop screen, whatever connection “Your Highness” had to comedy was lost.  Instead, what I wasted $4 on iTunes for was a comedy in name only, something so void of laughter that I couldn’t even be amused or endeared by its ridiculous vulgarity.  The lack of effort put into the movie was apparent from the first scene when McBride broke his accent no less than five times, and the movie just continued to deteriorate from there.

I’m sorry, but Danny McBride just being Danny McBride isn’t funny; he needs a good script to make him that way.  I’m sorry, but James Franco playing dumb just doesn’t work when he’s done “Pineapple Express” already (and “127 Hours” too).  I’m sorry, but Natalie Portman, between this and “No Strings Attached” in 2011, should really just stay out of comedy altogether.  And I’m really sorry, Hollywood comedy gurus, but you can’t just whip out the phallus of a Minotaur for an easy laugh.  Believe it or not, you actually have to try.  Sorry to be the latest bearer of bad news.  D+ / 





REVIEW: 30 Minutes or Less

10 08 2011

Comparison sucks, especially when you invite yourself to be judged against a fantastically entertaining comedic marvel like “Zombieland.”  While Ruben Fleischer’s directorial debut was a fun, creative comedy, his second go-round,”30 Minutes or Less,” is exactly the opposite.  It feels like something Adam Sandler didn’t have time to squeeze in his schedule between “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy.”

It’s full of stupid, expected gags that produce some mild laughs, but we’re long past the point of diminishing returns with these worn-out premises.  Not to mention it’s disappointing to watch two emerging comedic stars and one very funny serious actor fail to breathe any sort of energy into this limp vehicle for cheap humor.  The movie is hardly bad by anyone’s standards, and summer 2011 has seen a lot worse in this genre (cough, “The Change-Up“).  But as I often add on middling movies, there have been a lot better (case in point, “Bridesmaids“), and if you just HAVE to watch something funny, this may provide a little more than the minimum satisfaction level you need to make your time and money worthwhile.

The movie serves up double the buddy comedy as moronic pals Dwayne and Travis (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) strap a homemade bomb to unsuspecting pizza boy Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) in order to make him rob a bank so they can pay a crazed assassin (Michael Peña) to put the hit on Dwayne’s dad.  Reeling, Nick hits up his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) – while he is teaching middle schoolers no less – to help him commit a multitude of criminal acts.  As their day spirals out of control and into the realm of the farcical, the wild ride of both pair of companions manages to garner a few decent (albeit cheap) laughs.

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