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: The Counselor

25 10 2015

Ever wondered what it would look and sound like if Aaron Sorkin took a pass at adapting “No Country for Old Men?” It might resemble Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” a film taken from a script by great novelist Cormac McCarthy himself. For someone so sparse and minimalistic in prose, his first screenplay sure feels bombastic.

It’s hard to fathom that someone so widely lauded as one of the most significant writers of our time could turn in a work full of fortune-cookie dialogue and overwrought, self-serious drama. (Wait, maybe this was the blueprint for season 2 of “True Detective.”) At times, it even feels like McCarthy has to be pulling some kind of elaborate prank on his audience. How else could anyone possibly explain why “The Counselor” goes on a bizarre tangent to depict Cameron Diaz’s Malkina sexually pleasuring herself on the windshield of a Ferrari?

Or perhaps McCarthy needs a strong authorial buffer like the Coen Brothers to translate into the medium of cinema. (John Hillcoat really just didn’t cut it on “The Road.”) Ridley Scott assembled quite the cast to bring the writer’s vision to life, but none of these talented thespians can transcend the schlock of the script. It even renders Michael Fassbender almost ineffective, and that’s really saying something.

In somewhat of a change of pace, McCarthy goes heavy on conversation and light on characterization. His saga of greed, money and jealousy set along the U.S.-Mexico border plays as little more than a collection of connected events since the various personalities involved never get explored in much depth. There’s at once too much and not enough happening in “The Counselor.” Rather than trying to resolve these contradictions, I’d rather just forget that all involved even spent their time on this.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Martian

24 10 2015

Since he burst onto the scene with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon usually seems to play some version of that titular character. He’s had many a memorable movie and role in his decades-long career, but they almost inevitably come from the same mold of a loud, often brash man’s man. Damon might be one of the best at his particular brand of swagger, though it comes at the cost of getting caught up in an individual creation of his.

That changes for Damon with “The Martian,” a movie that reminds us of his star power since he’s tasked with essentially carrying it all on his shoulders.  While boasting a terrific ensemble, the heart of the story is a one-man show. Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, gets stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead in a dust storm by the rest of his crew.

Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or James Franco in “127 Hours,” Damon rises to the occasion of keeping things moving and interesting with no one to act opposite. This challenge actually brings out the best in Damon, as a matter of fact. For an actor who often draws strength from being the most powerful person in a given scene, not having anyone to beat makes him turn inwards. The result is one of his most heartfelt, moving performances to date.

While he focuses on survival, all of NASA works tirelessly on Watney’s rescue. This goes far beyond his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s steely yet humane Captain Lewis. Entire new spacecrafts must be built and engineered, which brings out the best in both jet propulsion lab head head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Donald Glover’s young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell. (Yes, Childish Gambino.)  China also gets involved in the humanitarian mission, making sure that NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) earn their salaries.

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REVIEW: Exodus: Gods and Kings

20 12 2014

Usually, when writers proclaim a story has biblical connotations, implications, or overtones, they suggest a certain primordial grandiosity of themes and conflicts.  Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is quite literally biblical, however, and does not even come close to achieving that standard.  It takes far more cues from an interminable “Hobbit” film than it does from its source material that inspires billions.

The action on screen plays out like a final walk-through for a real movie.  The blocking of actors looks clumsy and without purpose.  Lines come across as recited rather than deeply felt.  And when the whole film plays out against a CGI-heavy background that can never overcome an overwhelming sensation of artificiality, “Exodus” feels like it could be capable of inspiring its own exodus of audiences fleeing the film itself.

The job of writing a compelling movie about the conflict between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) seems simple enough.  The clash of a pharaoh with a legitimate threat to his empire from a powerful deity is gripping in concept alone.  Then add in that the revolution is being spearheaded by his estranged stepbrother, and it becomes the kind of drama that ought to have writers drooling over their keyboards.

Yet most of the film’s problems seem to originate at the level of the script, which likely underwent quite a few drafts given that four writers are given credit.  The film certainly does not deserve to bear the name of great scripter Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of stellar work from “Schindler’s List” to “Moneyball“).  “Exodus” feels skeletal, the sketch of what a true screenplay should resemble.  The general progression of events is in place, but no one has affixed any supplemental scenes to give it depth of character or emotion.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 26, 2013)

26 07 2013

Some movies are truly once in a lifetime.  My pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Kevin MacDonald’s singular documentary “Life in a Day,” is one such picture.  It’s a film that may actually be able to merit the term universal as it attempts to capture not one shared experience but all worldwide collective experiences using the incredible democratic medium of YouTube.  (And camera crews were dispatched to less wired-in areas of the globe, for those of you concerned about underrepresented viewpoints.)

The experiment was simple: MacDonald and producer Ridley Scott asked people to submit whatever was happening in their lives to YouTube on Saturday, July 24, 2010.  I remember the promotion of the film being all over the site and nearly filmed something myself.  But for whatever reason, I ultimately chose not to, probably out of shame or fear or uncertainty.

Thankfully, there were tons of people who did not share my reservations and were willing to let the world see a little bit of their life.  The worldwide collage that MacDonald assembles is nothing short of earth-shattering as it encompasses as close to the full range of human experience as possible in an hour and a half.  He includes the ordinary and the extraordinary, the highest peaks and the lowest valleys, the big events and the small miracles.

In this catchall of global life, we the audience are renewed by observing how we are all so alike yet also so unique and distinct  We see how the act of recording can ascribe some sort of significance to just any other day.  Yet the miracle of “Life in a Day” is the way it also convinces us that just the act of living itself is significant in and of itself, and we ought to be proud to live each and every day.  A whole world of emotions and experiences awaits us when we wake up; it’s up to us, however, to give them meaning.





REVIEW: Prometheus

17 12 2012

It’s rare to see any movie delve into deep theological, ontological, and existential questions that have puzzled humanity for millennia.  “Prometheus” isn’t even a pensive indie – it’s a blockbuster – and it still ponders them deeply in the far reaches of our universe to satisfying and intellectually stimulating effect.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and John Spaihts don’t pretend to have any answers.  Thankfully, they don’t have that kind of hubris.  After all, these are the quandaries that have kept philosophers twiddling their thumbs.  But it doesn’t ever feel like a cop out or negligent writing.  They effectively stage a thoughtful drama in outer space and pose the questions to a new audience in an freshly compelling frame.

A number of people have quibbled about the small things in “Prometheus,” such as its fidelity to the “Alien” franchise, the plausibility of various events, the nature of the “engineers” that serve as the mysterious beings for the film, and the motivations of certain characters.  And if you really wanted to nitpick Scott’s film, I’m sure you could find some flaws and holes in the plot.  I, for one, really want to know why people are apparently unable to run laterally a century from now.

But to harp on the fine print is to miss the point of “Prometheus” entirely.  It’s a layered cerebral and psychological drama that just happens to use the framework of science-fiction.  The film finds fascinating parallels between the mysteries of extra-terrestrial life and the mystery of our own origins and existence.  Then, it heightens our senses and gets the heart racing.  The mind, naturally, wants to catch up and runs in overdrive after the movie to ponder what it just experienced.

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REVIEW: Robin Hood

29 05 2010

I almost gave up hope on “Robin Hood,” but I’m glad I didn’t allow myself to become entirely disengaged. I’ll get right to the point: the first 45 minutes are absolutely brutal. They are boring and they seem completely pointless. They don’t do much to develop a story, yet as we see later, they are more like a prologue, providing crucial information to prop up the rest of the film.

But out of nowhere, the movie reverses the slump and becomes genuinely entertaining. Everything suddenly clicks: the story begins to make sense; the pace picks up; and Russell Crowe begins acting. It takes him a while to kick his performance in gear, like he’s finally fought off the hangover that plagued him at the beginning. He’s pretty good when he decides to act. When Crowe doesn’t, he lifelessly walks through the motions and mumbles every line, rendering them incoherent.

But maybe it’s not all his fault. The character in this movie is tough because it’s Robin Hood before he was Robin Hood. Have no doubt about it: this is not the Robin Hood we have come to know, and it’s not the one I anticipated. I wasn’t expecting the jolly fox in the green suit, but I was expecting a little more of the “steal from the rich and give to the needy” spirit that we most often associate with the character.

I assume we will see this aspect played up if a sequel is made, yet at the moment, the character is awkwardly undefined. In this movie, Crowe’s purpose is to establish the roots of the legendary defender of the weak. He doesn’t explore where this commitment is derived from so much as he gives us a Maximus rehash with a little more discretion. He’s chomping at the bit to be the legend that we see very little of the man.

Where Crowe has issues, co-star Cate Blanchett has none. Strangely, the movie only seems to reach its full vitality when Blanchett is on screen. She picks up on whatever tiny nuances the script has, and her acting always hits precisely the right tone. Blanchett has graced the screen with many of the preeminent male actors of our generation (DiCaprio, Pitt, Damon), so her history alone makes it impossible to say that her chemistry with Crowe ranks among her best. However, the two do make a great pair, and their scenes are easily the movie’s most memorable that don’t involve the impaling of bodies by arrows.

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