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: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

20 11 2016

It’s good to be back in the Potterverse. While I might resist some of the revisionist history and postscripts of my beloved characters, a tangential outing like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” hits the sweet spot. It’s clear that J.K. Rowling, who serves here as both screenwriter and producer, has more to explore and say about the magical world she created. Even if the roadmap to the supposedly five-part series she plans has not yet emerged, this first film makes for a fun, thoughtful outing.

The sheer presence of gentle ginger Eddie Redmayne alone, vocal in his bashful disappointment over not being cast as a Weasley, provides two hours of joy. The role of magical zoologist Newt Scamander is finely calibrated to match his unique star power: slightly awkward, modestly fumbling, overwhelmingly good-hearted. He serves as both our guide to a host of creatures never introduced to us by Hagrid and an outsider observing the operations of the American wizarding community.

Scamander arrives at Ellis Island with a suitcase full of living organisms and a mission to return some of them to their natural habitats. However, a series of chance encounters with a No-Maj (American speak for “Muggle”) gets him caught up in the geopolitical realities of the United States. Scamander becomes the unwitting companion to the rogue auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who dedicates herself to finding a magical disturbance among the No-Maj that threatens to disrupt the Americans’ carefully guarded segregation of the two communities. Quite often, Scamander’s beasts get loose and make a mess out of an already precarious situation, and therein lies the enjoyment. He can always, somehow, wrangle control.

It will be interesting to see how, as the series progresses, Rowling deals with the political undertones introduced here. “Fantastic Beasts” strays away from the obvious allegory of franchises like “X-Men,” perhaps at the expense of glossing over or trivializing the issues. In this introduction, she introduces a group of puritanical recluses called “Second-Salemers” who call for a new purge of the magical community and a dark perversion of wizardry in Europe that Americans deny will wash up on their shores. It appears she will have plenty to pull from, both in ’30s history and contemporary society, in making these themes relevant. B+3stars





REVIEW: Steve Jobs

27 12 2015

I have no qualms in saying that, in high school, the discovery of Aaron Sorkin’s writing completely changed the way I thought about how people could talk in fiction. Here were characters that spoke with purpose in every line, both illuminating their inner thought process and highlighting the themes of the work. (If you doubt its influence, just read the play I wrote my senior year that falls somewhere between a love letter to and ripoff of Sorkin.)

The more I rewatch “The Social Network,” however, the more I realize that the heft of the content is the real star of that script. The delivery in “Sorkinese” – as many have come to call it – serves to enhance, not replace, that treasure trove of insights into class, status and social structure in contemporary America. The hyperexpressive dialogue feels justified practically by the bulk of commentary that the characters must convey – and, remarkably, tomes are still left unsaid.

Sorkin’s latest script, “Steve Jobs” (adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of the same name), narrows its focus from the revolutionizing of society to a man with the vision to spark such revolutions. As the man whose inventions shook up telephones, personal computing, animation, publishing and music, Jobs feels like a natural subject for Sorkin given his obsession with grandiloquent geniuses. Even his work on the script for 2011’s “Moneyball,” which praised the empirically driven philosophy of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, evinces his fascination with people who innovate in spite of steep institutional pressure to maintain an inefficient status quo.

Yet, at the same time, choosing Jobs as someone to speak Sorkinese fluently smells a bit like a man trying to cast God in his own image – and not the other way around. The stylized dialogue flies rapidly in “Steve Jobs,” which is not entirely dissimilar from “The Social Network.” But here, the metaphors and arcane cultural references are delivered in a continual walk-and-talk, not in such visibly formal settings.

Sorkin chooses to stage his drama within the confines of a backstage drama (as opposed to the courtroom drama of Zuckerberg’s saga), a style which generally portrays characters with their guards down and speaking with their guards down. Jobs was undoubtedly smart enough to talk as Fassbender’s portrayal of him does, though it feels somewhat stilted and artificial.

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REVIEW: Queen of Earth

6 12 2015

Queen of EarthAlex Ross Perry’s latest film, “Queen of Earth,” recalls the work of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavettes in its visual style. Yet in its dialogue and story, the film feels a bit like Chekov’s stab at a psychological thriller.

In fact, I got a bit of déjà vu to Woody Allen’s “September,” a chamber drama set in a rustic retreat. The setting is similar in “Queen of Earth” – a lake house, populated by a smug set of unabashedly spoiled thirty-somethings. The majority of the film’s ninety minutes are devoted to the verbal shanking that occurs between two frenemies, Katherine Waterston’s Virginia and Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine. The latter of the two takes it a little rougher and begins to suffer a bit of a crack up.

Thankfully, Moss and Waterston are talented enough thespians to make these fights interesting. Perry, who penned indelible one-liners for his previous features “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip,” paints in almost humorously broad strokes here. His general, vague dialogue makes their conflict feel rather lacking in depth. Furthermore, it feels at odds with his aesthetic tools of choice, which heavily rely on close-ups of their faces to carry the drama.

While this might be a step forward for Perry as an artist, it seems to have come at the cost of his memorable, believable characters. Hopefully he can find a way to better marry the two sensibilities moving forward. B- / 2stars





REVIEW: Inherent Vice

25 11 2014

Inherent ViceNew York Film Festival

Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice” ends with his chief character, Doc Sportello,  attempting to discern shapes within a haze that has formed outside his car window.  Not to worry, this is not a spoiler since screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to end his cinematic adaptation on an entirely different note altogether.  But the passage is such an apropos summation of “Inherent Vice,” both in terms of its content and the ensuing experience, that it certainly deserves a place in the discussion.

While this is a not entirely unusual noir-tinged mystery surrounding corruption and vice, the story is hardly straightforward or easily discernible.  Characters drop in and out of the narrative at will, making it rather difficult to decipher who the key players really are.  Take no motivation and no appearance at face value, because it is likely to change in the blink of an eye.

Anderson cycles through events at such a dizzying speed that trying to connect the dots of “Inherent Vice” in real-time will only result in missing the next key piece of information.  (I found myself drawn to read Pynchon’s novel after seeing the movie to get a firmer grip on the plot.)  Might I suggest just to kick back, allow the film to wash over you, and let Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello be your spirit guide through the fog of Los Angeles in 1970.

In a fictional beach community outside the city proper, steadily stoned private eye Doc tries to make sense of a strange case in a transitional time period.  The city is still reeling from Manson mayhem, and hippies are no longer cute animals at the zoo but entities whose every move is subject to suspicion.  People are beginning to anticipate Nixonite and Reaganite malaise, though it remains unformed and intangible.  Ultimately, his understanding is about as good as ours – which is to say, it scarcely exists.  What begins as a routine investigation of Doc’s ex-flame and her rich new lover quickly spirals into something far more sprawling.

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