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: Trespass Against Us

2 04 2017

No law dictates that every movie about rural-based robbers must be compared to “Hell or High Water,” but it’s going to be a tempting comparison from hereon out given the way that film seamlessly connected geographic isolation with the self-defeating act. Director Adam Smith and writer Alastair Simmons try something similar with the dwellers of a secluded Irish mobile-home compound in “Trespass Against Us” to mixed effect. It’s passable as a crime thriller but genuinely compelling as the story of one father’s struggle.

That delinquent dad is Michael Fassbender’s Chad Cutler, the most put-together offspring of patriarch Colby (Brendan Gleeson), a Jim Jones-type who inspires a religiously-tinged devotion from his kin. Chad has entered the family trade of larceny, though with significant hesitation due in part to pressure from his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) to provide some semblance of normality for their two young kids. She wants stability, both in his profession and their living quarters.

There’s no grand moment of conscience for Chad in “Trespass Against Us.” He would rather find some way to please both masters in his life by continuing with extralegal measures away from the Cutler shantytown. But given the escalation of activity demanded by Colby, such a grand bargain becomes exceedingly elusive. Fassbender gives the movie real weight as he ponders which side of the divide Chad would like to fall. It’s a more repressed, bottled-up version of the characters he typically animates, and the more internalized portrayal works for Chad, a man who projects authority without really ever experiencing much autonomy. Discovering who he is proves the greater draw than what he does. B





REVIEW: Song to Song

28 03 2017

If life is a song, as narration from Rooney Mara’s Faye in “Song to Song” suggests, then rest assured that writer/director Terrence Malick is following the spasmodic tune in his own head with dogged determination. In what appears to be the final feature film made in his post-“The Tree of Life” productivity period, the cinema’s philosopher laureate continues to push himself further into avant-garde, non-narrative forms of storytelling. This latest work might be the definitive achievement of the bunch as Malick probes and roves more than he presumes and pronounces, making the spirit of the film match his intellectually curious aesthetic.

Not one to slow down in his seventies, Malick expands the scope of his deeply interior characterizations to encompass an entire ensemble. His past films normally only allow audiences entry to a select few characters’ headspace through pensive narration. In “Song to Song,” that applies to aspiring musicians Faye and BV (Ryan Gosling) as well as teacher-turned-waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman) dragged into their orbit.

Each of these three tries to follow their motivating forces – love, art, protection – by trusting their instincts. Yet these often decisions lead them back to a sinister music producer Cook, played with a primate-like ferocity by Michael Fassbender. He’s commercialism incarnate, simultaneously abhorrent and alluring. Cook provides, but he also demands. When the impulse to love crosses into lust, he’s there to cash in.

“Song to Song” hums by on the inclination of Malick’s emotional logic, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera (seemingly unresponsive to the laws of gravity) there to capture his vision in all its grimy intimacy. He’s not big on traditional beauty here; long lens shots flatten out the images, and jump cuts within the same scene provide a jarring jolt to the mundane. But there’s something more honest about the ever-searching indeterminacy of the film. Malick seems less fixated on answers and more interested in simply tracing the development of a musical movement. The end result is far from melodic, though that matters not. For all the seeking and yearning in the story and the form itself, the free-flowing riff makes for a perfect means of expression. B+





REVIEW: X-Men: Apocalypse

14 02 2017

Is it becoming contractually obligatory for a series’ third installment to be bland and lackluster? Must they expend all their energy in the first two films? Because by the time “X-Men: Apocalypse” came to a close, I found myself struggling to recall what it was that had me so jazzed after Matthew Vaughn’s reinvigoration of the franchise in the first place.

“It’s like a two hour pilot that introduces you to a fantastic ensemble while also fleshing out the conflict between its two biggest stars,” I wrote of “X-Men: First Class” back in 2011. So to extend the television metaphor, I guess this is that point a few seasons into a show where I disengage after noticing it’s clearly jumped the shark. The deeper dive into the series’ key figures, James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, has now officially ceded way to bloated, overstuffed “Spider-Man 3” syndrome.

The numerous characters in the “X-Men” universe, from supersonic Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), have moved from strength to liability. Singer, with the aid of screenwriter Simon Kinberg, packs “X-Men: Apocalypse” full of new characters who ultimately feel like they are playing out narratives in search of a spinoff franchise. And while there’s really only one villain, Oscar Isaac’s prehistoric Apocalypse, he gets so little to do that a great actor ends up giving a mummified performance.

That cast of rising stars, once such an asset for the series, now weighs like a millstone around its neck. McAvoy, Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult have all seen their stars rise considerably since 2011. They owe a lot of that to the “X-Men” franchise. And they don’t pay it back in what could likely serve as their final outing in the respective roles. It’s less acting and more contract fulfillment. C+2stars





REVIEW: The Light Between Oceans

31 08 2016

There are no battle scenes in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” but it is undoubtedly a war movie. One need not see the dispiriting, demoralizing trenches of World War I when their effects are so clearly visible in the blank expression of Michael Fassbender’s Tom Sherbourne. All vestiges of his personality must reside permanently buried in some European forest because shell shock has left a shell of a man, one so eager to extricate himself from human contact that he volunteers for a solitary position tending to a lighthouse off the Australian coast.

Tom’s isolated assignment recalls the kind of lonely confinement afforded Jack Torrance in “The Shining.” While he might not suffer a psychotic break or murderous episode, the location exacts a toll in its own, quiet way. In the wake of the Great War’s devastation, Tom attempts to maintain the mirage of a moral universe by upholding order on the smallest possible scale. “The Light Between Oceans” never uses the oft-elided interwar period to foreshadow the next looming conflict, a decision that lends weight to his inner agony.

Alone, Tom’s illusion seems faintly sustainable. The notion begins to crumble, however, when his sorrow gives way to genuine affection for Alicia Vikander’s Isabel Graysmark. Their flirtations begin with only the faintest of sparks, and they do not generate any more heat in the bedroom. That’s on purpose – for Tom, physical intimacy is something he approaches with trepidation since the last bodies he came into contact with were likely dead ones.

Isabel wants a baby, yet several failed pregnancies make the prospect seem implausible. Their thwarted attempts at birth feel quite reflective of the post-war Western world, trying to create a brighter future but stillborn efforts contribute to a growing sense of dread that life will never bloom again.

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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: Macbeth

13 12 2015

MacbethRoger Ebert once famously quipped, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” This maxim seems to apply doubly so to Justin Kurzel’s take on the Scottish Play, William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Scripters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso take five acts from the Bard and condense them to under two hours on screen. Though no film need overstay its welcome, these screenwriters seem a little too eager to abridge the rich source material. Part of the experience of “Macbeth” is being able to observe the gradual changes in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as the quest for power corrodes their souls. With fewer opportunities to see that conflict play out, it follows that their journeys feel a little less complete.

Having less Shakespearean verse tossed around plays to the strengths of Kurzel, a director whose films thrive on mood and ambiance. In both “Macbeth” and his debut, 2012’s “The Snowtown Murders,” collaborations with director of photography Adam Arkapaw have set brooding, haunting tones from expertly calibrated shots. Here, they focus on the landscape of the Scottish Highlands and how effortlessly it dwarves the characters who pass through it. At the very least, this helps differentiate his take on “Macbeth” from anything one could see on the stage, shrinking actors to mere cogs in the cosmos.

Unfortunately, he never quite finds a cinematic language that makes Shakespeare’s soliloquies feel as natural as the countryside vistas. Try as he might, Kurzel still remains at a bit of a loss as to how to present long stretches of uninterrupted dialogue, a convention audiences have decided to accept when framed inside a proscenium arch. The challenge has escaped many filmmakers, so he’s in good company. Fortunately, Kurzel has two incredible actors in Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard to deliver the dialogue and distract from any staginess.

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