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: King Cobra

19 04 2017

There’s plenty of “period” footage in Justin Kelly’s “King Cobra” to date the film back to the mid-2000s. Videos have that digital grain from the middling quality video camera available at the time. A character turns the lens of a digital camera to face him for a selfie, pre-front facing touchscreen.

Yet of all the things that locate the film in the time, there was one indelible image. Shockingly, in a movie set in the world of gay pornography, it was not something involving explicit sex. (And for those looking for that kind of thing, this isn’t some low-budget Skinemax flick.) It’s the news showing footage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, summoning a cascade of memories of what it was like to be alive in 2005. The odd mix of malaise, shame and embarrassment provides a fitting backdrop for “King Cobra,” where gay characters of various comfort levels in their sexuality grapple with the era’s repression.

It’s too bad that the film doesn’t just borrow the mood of the Bush era. It also takes the stereotypes. Though based on a true story, every gay character in “King Cobra” fits into some kind of tired, lazy archetype: the young and nubile stud, the predatory porn producer, the aging diva, the jealous lover. The actors play them as clingy, feminine and sexually voracious. We’re talking pre-“Brokeback Mountain” style caricatures here.

If Kelly gave his characters the same texture he granted their milieu, the film might amount to something. Instead, it plays like a traditional show business tale of a young talent (Garrett Clayton’s Brent Corrigan) who allows himself to get sweet-talked by a lecherous Internet porn mogul (Christian Slater’s closeted creep Stephen). The film takes an interesting turn when a rival producer/star duo (James Franco and Keegan Allen’s Joe and Harlow) intervene, but by that point, it’s tough to get invested in anything that’s happening. C+





REVIEW: Queen of the Desert

5 04 2017

“You will not scare men with your intelligence,” warns an elder to the young Gertrude Bell at the outset of Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert.” It’s the kind of “nevertheless, she persisted” moment that would spur on a great feminist tale. Instead, the line represents the tease for a story that never materializes.

This story of an accomplished archaeologist who provided valuable research on tribes in the Ottoman Empire as their empire collapses is all too eager to define her life in relation to the men whose path she crosses. There’s T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame, a more professional acquaintance, but she sets off on her quest primarily in grief-stricken anguish at the loss of Henry Cadogan (James Franco). While in the Middle East, she spends as much time on screen rebuffing offers from Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) as she interacts with the native tribes.

This becomes an issue later on when Herzog tries to land the film with an anti-imperialist message as Winston Churchill arrives from the British Empire to help break up the Ottoman Empire. Gradually, Bell does grow into a bit of an anti-imperialist as she increases her understanding of the region’s tribes. But in her embittered farewell, knowing that her advice will likely be discarded, Bell expresses a kind of fondness for the people she loves that also reeks of a white savior complex.

The only thing to recommend in the film is Pattinson’s turn as Lawrence; he does the self-effacing British elite routine with aplomb. Otherwise, “Queen of the Desert” sits on a hollow throne. C





REVIEW: Goat

2 10 2016

goatSundance Film Festival

“The pledges have to go through hell, or what’s the f—ing point?” It’s a question posed toward the end of Andrew Neel’s “Goat” by cruel fraternity pledgemaster Dixon (Jake Picking), and the film provides no easy answer.

We live in isolating, estranging times that can often leave young people separated from their very essence. The pressures for college-aged men today, at a time when centuries of male hegemony are being upended by gender equality, can often take on a dark tenor that drives reckless behavior. The Greek system is meant to provide belonging, community and brotherhood. Its current practice frequently perverts these ideals into violence, sadism and outright cruelty.

When Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) enters Phi Sigma Mu, it’s due in large part to the presence of his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) already being a brother. But there’s more than just family loyalty behind the decision to rush – Brad is still recovering from a mugging incident that left bruises on his body and pride. The fraternity becomes a space in which he can reclaim the masculinity he feels those brutes took from him that fateful night.

The Phi Sigma Mu residence, in particular the basement where so much hazing takes place, houses many distinct personalities with their own issues they look to the organization to solve. Some are looking for validation of their future prospects. Others are trying to resolve their sexual frustrations with women, even going as far as engaging in acts with homoerotic undertones that replace the contact they miss. All taken together, the brothers create and perpetuate a system in which violence and humiliation only begets further violence and humiliation. Their credo states “All My Strength Is In My Union,” but the initiation rituals only sew discord and mistrust.

The target of Neel’s rage is not the fraternity system. It’s toxic masculinity. “Goat” offers little in the way of pointers as to how this can be overcome. But we do get a little bit of hope in observing the progressing relationship dynamics between the blood brothers Brad and Brett. The elder feels no need to help his younger sibling upon entering rush; in fact, he probably goes harder on him to avoid accusations of favoritism. Yet the more that hazing breaks Brad’s spirits, the more Brett begins to realize that so little about Phi Sigma Mu actually matters. Through Brett’s genuine compassion, they take strides toward making peace with the fraternity. That empathy provides a nice twinge of hope after being party to some misguided acts of true brutality. B+3stars





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: The Adderall Diaries

23 04 2016

The Adderall DiariesIf there were some prize to honor the busiest movies of the year, Pamela Romanowsky’s “The Adderall Diaries” would definitely be an early contender. In just over 80 minutes, the film juggles storylines like a poorly trained rodeo clown juggles clubs. That is to say, it does well for a while and then just kind of collapses to slightly humorous effect.

“The Adderall Diaries” is adapted from the memoir by Stephen Elliott, which served as a partial exorcism for the demons of his past, including a toxic relationship with his estranged father (Ed Harris) and just general malicious teenage tomfoolery. As such actions are wan to do, they carry repercussions for Elliott into the present that make him unreliable to meet publication deadlines, reckless in personal relationships and inexplicably drawn to a murder trial in which a husband (Christian Slater) supposedly killed his wife.

The action ebbs and flows from one story thread to the other, all reflecting back on the mess that is Elliott’s life. At its best, “The Adderall Diaries” recalls the impressionistic editing of Jean-Marc Vallée in “Wild.” More often, however, it recalls the kind of work produced by someone who forgets to take the titular medicine if prescribed. Not only is the sum less than the total of its parts, but those parts just never get the space to develop. C+2stars





RiverRun 2015: the best (and worst) of the rest

27 04 2015

RRI wound up seeing 10 films (plus an archival screening of “The Wild Bunch”) at RiverRun, far more than I should have seen given how busy I was that week.  Was it all worth it?

Depends on what movie I was walking out of when you asked me the question.  There were some great films that I was glad to see, but there were also some rather miserable films.  Here’s a sampling of them both.

Stray Dog

Stray DogDebra Granik’s documentary “Stray Dog” follows biker and Vietnam veteran Ron “Stray Dog” Hall as he goes about his business in America’s heartland.  Granik throws us right into the action, providing no context or commentary to set the stage.  Her presence is never acknowledged and seldom felt throughout, making for a documentary essentially without a documentarian.

As a result, the film feels like a rather free-form portrait of salt of the earth americans like Stray Dog and his young Mexican wife Alicia.   Granik’s subject is just … there.  There is no need to provide standard documentary conventions like talking heads to provide information, though there ought to be something to approximate its effect.  Without anything to signal any importance in the proceedings, the film starts to feel like an interminable home video.

“Stray Dog,” all observation and no insight, might have been more aptly titled “Stray Narrative.”

Still the Water

Still the WaterIn one of the first images in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a young Mason plays with the corpse of a bird in his backyard.  An audience of decent intelligence watching the film picks up on this symbol and intuits that it prompts the character to meditate on life and death.  No discussion, no line is necessary.

Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water,” however, makes a two-hour film about what follows the discovery of a human corpse on a beach in Japan.  Its effect is largely measured through two teenage characters who begin to see the interconnectedness between life’s beginning and end.  Kyoko deals with the illness of her mother, while her boyfriend Kaito comes to grips with the separation of his parents.

The film mostly mills about as the unsteady couple trades empty philosophical musings amidst a beautifully shot landscape.  (Water as a metaphor?  Groundbreaking.)  Kawase’s direction is tender and sincere, to be sure, but it all goes to the service of a fairly banal story.

Welcome to Leith

Welcome to LeithA documentary like Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s “Welcome to Leith” is the stuff of nightmares.  In a small North Dakota town, described by someone as “B-roll for ‘The Walking Dead,'” an aging neo-Nazi buys up parcels of property to attract his followers and gain civic influence.  And it’s not just any white supremacist, either; Craig Cobb was kicked out of countries as far-reaching as Estonia and is monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center for leading hate groups.

Nichols and Walker document from both sides battling for the soul of the soil, resulting in a fascinating perspective on the events.  They begin with the conception of town’s denizens – all two dozen or so of them – as decent, humble, and rational people.  The residents of Leith basically consider the mayorship a “family business,” for heaven’s sake!

Watching Cobb and his cronies exact a toll from them makes for a tough watch.  Whether justified or not by the threats and vitriol lobbed their way, Leith’s citizens abandon the moral high ground to wrestle in the mud with those terrorizing their town.  After being pushed to the edge, they decide that the only way to fight insanity is with insanity – a choice likely influenced by the influx of attention on their municipality.

Gripping and downright terrifying, “Welcome to Leith” follows a volatile situation to the brink of explosion … and its impact cannot simply be shaken off by dismissing it as a movie.  This is reality, and even the most upright idealists cannot emerge from it unscathed and unbruised.

Yosemite

YosemiteJames Franco’s short story collection “Palo Alto Stories” has proven a very fertile source material for up-and-coming feature filmmakers.  Actually, that sentence should read, “Anything with James Franco’s name on it these days can find some financial backing and a few film festivals willing to exhibit the final product.”

Granted, the majority of indie projects Franco takes on possess sufficient quality, including Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto.”  Gabrielle Demeestere’s take on Franco lore, “Yosemite,” is far less impressive.  This interlocking triptych of short stories offers a far less effective portrait of a fractured, disaffected suburbia than Coppola’s take on the material.

Much of Demeestere’s work on the film is solid, such as the precise sound design and attention to period detail.  She also draws three solid performances from the pre-pubescent boys leading the segments of “Yosemite.”  Where the film falters is in her patient, casual pacing.  Such a languid tone without sufficient payoff feels like quite a drag, especially because the normalcy observed along the way offers little accompanying profundity.  And do not even get me started on the painfully obvious mountain lion motif…