Horror Film Review: Alien: Convenant (dir by Ridley Scott)


Why did Alien: Covenant fail?

It’s a legitimate question.  Alien itself is such an iconic horror film that, 38 years after it was first released, blatant rip-offs like Life are still being produced and, in many case, are still doing pretty well at the box office.  When John Hurt died earlier this year, he left behind a long and distinguished filmography but almost every obituary opened by discussing his role in Alien.  

Alien: Convenant received a good deal of pre-release publicity, mostly centering on the fact that Ridley Scott was not only the filming the latest installment of the franchise but that this was going to be a true Alien film, as opposed to a strange hybrid like Prometheus.  Personally, when I first saw the trailer, I thought it looked like something was a little off about it.  The spaceship looked way too clean and, for that matter, so did all the humans.  Whereas Alien and Aliens were all about sweaty, profane men and women stuck in dark and cramped locations, the humans in Alien: Convenant just looked too damn perky.  In at least one of the trailers, they were all smiling.  No one smiles in space, at least not in an Alien movie.  Still, everyone else seemed to be super excited about the trailer so I figured that maybe I was just being overly critical.

Then the movie came out.  It got some respectful but somewhat restrained reviews, though it did seem like quite a few critics were more interested in praising the longevity of the series as opposed to actually talking about the film itself.  At the box office, it performed a bit below expectations during the first week but then again, that’s pretty much been the story for almost every film that’s been released in 2017.  But then, during the second week, it plunged from being the number one movie in America to being the number four movie in America.  In the third week, it plunged again and, in the fourth week, it left first-run theaters and headed for the dollar cinemas.  When a widely anticipated film like that — especially one that is part of a historically popular franchise — heads to purgatory after only four weeks, the only thing you can blame is word of mouth.

Why did Alien: Covenant fail?

Well, there’s several reasons why this film failed to connect with audiences.

First off, the plot is rather familiar.  In the future, the crew of a spaceship picks up a radio transmission for a nearby planet and the captain (played, in this case, by Billy Crudup) sends down an expedition to investigate.  Of course, it turns out that the planet is full of facehuggers and xenomorphs and all the other stuff that audiences typically expect from an Alien film.  Also on the planet is David (Michael Fassbender), the replicant who is the sole survivor from Prometheus.  (Fassbender actually plays two roles in Covenant.  He also plays Walter, another replicant.  One is bad and one is good.)  Basically, Covenant takes the plots of Alien and Aliens and mashes them together.  But it never answers the question of why audiences wouldn’t be better off just watching the originals.

The humans themselves are rather blandly written and somewhat interchangeable.  There’s no one who is memorably quirky like Bill Paxton or Harry Dean Stanton.  Katherine Waterston makes for a bland substitute for both Sigourney Weaver and Noomi Rapace.  Usually, I like Danny McBride but he seems out of place in an Alien film.  Genuinely interesting actors, like James Franco, Amy Seimetz, and Carmen Ejogo, are all dispatched far too early.  Probably the best performance in the film comes from Michael Fassbender but, for anyone who has any knowledge of what usually happens with replicants in the Alien franchise, there’s no surprises to be found in either of his characters.

But ultimately, the main problem with Alien: Covenant is that it just wasn’t scary.  Some might say that this is due to the fact that we’re no longer shocked by the sight of aliens bursting out of people’s chests.  However, I recently watched Alien.  I watched it with the full knowledge that, as soon as John Hurt sat down to eat, that little bugger was going to burst out of his chest and that blood and bones were going to fly everywhere.  I also knew that Harry Dean Stanton was going to end up walking right underneath the alien.  I knew that Tom Skerritt’s radio was going to go dead.  I knew that the alien would be waiting for Sigourney Weaver in the escape pod.  I knew all of this and Alien still scared the Hell out of me, as it has every time that I’ve watched it.

And I also had the same reaction when I recently watched Aliens.  Yes, I knew that the space marines weren’t going to be able to fight the aliens.  I knew what was going to happen to Paul Reiser.  I knew that Bill Paxton was going to end up chanting, “Game over, man!”  I knew that aliens were going to be bursting off of chests all over the place.  I knew it was all going to happen and yet, turning out all the lights and watching Aliens still left me feeling shaken.

The difference between those two films and Alien: Covenant is that the first two films felt authentic.  The ships felt lived in.  The characters felt real.  Both films were full of rough edges and small details that invited you to try to look closer.  You could watch those films and imagine yourself on those ships and talking to those characters.  You got scared because you knew that there was no way you’d be one of the survivors.  Everyone pretends that they would be Sigourney Weaver but most of us know that, in reality, we’re going to be Veronica Cartwright, sobbing and useless.

Alien: Covenant, on the other hand, is a very slick movie.  Nothing about it feels real and there’s no real emotional impact when the aliens show up and start killing people.  You never feel as if you know the characters, beyond whatever feelings you may have toward the actors involved.  “Oh,” you say, “the alien just burst out of Billy Crudup’s chest.  Well, he’s got another movie coming out so he’ll be fine…”

For all of the technical skill that went into making it, Alien: Covenant has no soul.  And, for that reason, it’s never scary.  (Sadly, Life felt like a better Alien movie than Covenant did.)  Hopefully, if there is another Alien film, that soul will be rediscovered.

Playing Catch-Up: The Hateful Eight (dir by Quentin Tarantino)


The_Hateful_Eight

Remember how I said that it was intimidating to admit that The Big Short didn’t do much for me as a viewer?  Well, it’s even more intimidating for me to admit that I felt much the same way about The Hateful Eight as well.

Nearly everyone I know loves The Hateful Eight and, going into it, I really wanted to love it as well.  After all, this is — as the opening credits remind us — Quentin Tarantino’s 8th film!  Tarantino is one of my favorite directors.  I thought his last film, Django Unchained, was a masterpiece and one of the most important films ever made about slavery.  Like many of you, I’ve followed all the details of the making of The Hateful Eight, from the initial script leak to the controversy over Tarantino’s comments on the police.  I was excited because the cast looked great and was full of veteran actors — like Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Bruce Dern — who all seemed likely to benefit from the Tarantino touch.  (Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, it cannot be denied that he’s given good roles to talented actors who are rarely given the opportunities that they deserve.)  When I heard that Ennio Morricone was going to be providing the score, I got even more excited.  Morricone and Tarantino; it seemed like the perfect combination for greatness.

Well, Morricone’s score is spectacular.  There’s talk that Morricone might finally win an Oscar for his work on The Hateful Eight and I certainly don’t have a problem with that.  (Hopefully, Morricone will have learned a lesson from the Golden Globes and, if he is nominated, he will either come to the ceremony himself or arrange for someone other than Tarantino to accept for him.)  And Jennifer Jason Leigh takes full advantage of her role, giving a truly ferocious performance.

But otherwise, The Hateful Eight just didn’t do much for me.  It’s not that I disliked the film.  There was a lot that worked but, for whatever reason, The Hateful Eight never enthralled me the way that past Tarantino films have.  The Hateful Eight left me saying, “Is that it?”

A lot of my reaction to The Hateful Eight has to do with the film’s length.  Taking place, for the most part, in only one location and structured more like a play than a film, The Hateful Eight would be a great 90 minute murder mystery.  Instead, it lasts nearly 3 hours and, at times, the film drags interminably.  As usual, Tarantino plays with time and, at one point, stops the action so that we can see what happened earlier in the day.  Unfortunately, as opposed to other Tarantino films, we don’t really learn anything new from this flashback and you get the feeling that it was included most because flaskbacks are a Tarantino trademark and because he wanted to find a way to work a somewhat pointless Zoe Bell cameo into the film.

As for Tarantino’s widely acclaimed script, I have to admit that I got kind of bored with this talky film.  Yes, the actors were all good and it’s always fun to listen to Samuel L. Jackson be a badass but the dialogue itself was largely repetitive and occasionally, the film itself threatened to turn into Tarantino-on-autopilot.

(Interestingly enough, Tarantino’s script features several creative euphemisms for oral sex and the characters come up with a handful of different ways to point out that Jackson is black but, when it comes to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, nobody can come up with anything more imaginative than repeatedly calling her a bitch.  While, unlike some critics, I don’t think The Hateful Eight is a misogynistic movie, I do have to admit that I was rolling my eyes around the fifth time that Leigh’s character was called a bitch and kept rolling them for the entire movie.  For a writer well-known for his ability to come up with colorful and memorable insults, Tarantino’s refusal to come up with anything more imaginative than “bitch” just felt lazy.)

What can I say?  The Hateful Eight just didn’t do much for me.  However, I do think that the film looked great and I certainly hope that Morricone and Leigh are at least nominated for their excellent work.  I look forward to Tarantino’s next film but I doubt I’ll be revisiting The Hateful Eight any time soon.

(By the way, with this review, I am now officially caught up on reviewing the films of 2015!)

Here’s The Latest Trailer For The Suddenly Controversial The Hateful Eight


It’s amazing how quickly things can change.

Just one month ago, The Hateful Eight was a film that everyone was eagerly anticipating but which no one was expecting to be as controversial or as incendiary as Quentin Tarantino’s previous film, Django Unchained.  I think a lot of us were expecting The Hateful Eight to be a bit like Kill Bill — i.e., a delirious homage to Tarantino’s favorite films and one that took place in a parallel universe.  We were expecting The Hateful Eight to be an example of pure cinema, with little connection to the outside world.

But that was a month ago.  Things have changed.  As I sit here typing this, The Hateful Eight has suddenly become one of the most controversial films of 2015.  Suddenly, deciding whether or not to see it has been transformed into a political decision.  Following Tarantino’s public criticism of the police and his refusal to back down from his statements, there are suddenly calls to boycott Tarantino’s latest film.

Myself, I’m not a huge fan of boycotting anything.  I may choose not to see something for whatever reason but that’s my choice and it certainly does not make me politically or morally superior to anyone who may choose differently.  Ultimately, those who want to boycott Tarantino’s film because of his liberal politics need to realize that they’ll also be boycotting a film that stars Libertarian Kurt Russell and features Republican Bruce Dern.  If you can’t stand Tarantino’s politics, don’t vote for him when he runs for President.  Don’t vote for any candidate that he endorses.  But leave his movies, and those of us who want to watch them, alone.

Add to that, The Hateful Eight looks really good!  Check out the trailer below!

A Tease of Tarantino’s Eighth…The Hateful Eight.


TheHatefulEight

The Hateful Eight was never to be seen due to the unfortunate leak of the early draft of Tarantino’s screenplay for the film. It wasn’t meant to be seen outside of those he had trusted to become part of the film. Yet, the script still managed to leak and fanboys worldwide rushed to download and take a gander at what Tarantino had planned for his eight film.

After weeks and a couple months of cooling down from the betrayal of having his work leaked before it was time, Tarantino finally backed off from his promise that The Hateful Eight will never be filmed. With sighs of relief, fans, admirers and critics were glad to see Tarantino change his mind and put the script into production.

Months have gone by since that decision and the start of principal photography. Mini teasers were released and publicity shots were disseminated to the public, but a proper teaser trailer still hadn’t been released.

Now, the waiting has ended as The Weinstein Company has released the first official teaser trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s eight film, The Hateful Eight.

The Hateful Eight will be seen in limited release this Christmas 2015 and everywhere else on January 8, 2016.

Lisa Marie Is Kinda Mad At The Screen Actors Guild


The Screen Actors Guild nominations were announced on Wednesday morning and I’m just going to be honest.  I am not happy.  The SAG nominations have a pretty good track record as an Oscar precursor, largely because the Actors’ Branch is the largest branch of the Academy.  The Actors Branch, of course, is totally made up of members of the SAG though not every member of SAG is in the Actors’ Branch.  As such, there’s usually one or two SAG nominations who don’t get an Oscar nomination but, on the whole, SAG is a pretty good precursor of who is ultimately going to receive an Oscar nomination next January.

So, why am I upset?

Well, the SAG nominated some very good and deserving performers this year but somehow, they did not nominate Michael Shannon for Take Shelter.  They did not nominate Carey Mulligan for Shame.  They did not nominate Andy Serkis for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  They did not nominate The Guard’s Brendan Gleeson. And, worst of all, they did not nominate Michael Fassbender for Shame.

My personal theory is that Fassbender’s brave performance left the other members of the SAG feeling small, in more ways than one.

Here’s what did get nominated:

Outstanding Performance By A Cast In A Motion Picture
Bridesmaids
The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
Midnight in Paris

Outstanding Performance By A Male Actor In A Leading Role
George Clooney, The Descendants
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Outstanding Performance By A Female Actor In A Leading Role
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Outstanding Performance By A Male Actor In A Supporting Role
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Armie Hammer, J. Edgar
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Outstanding Performance By A Female Actor In A Supporting Role
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs

On the plus side, the SAG showed absolutely no love for David Fincher’s rip-off of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Also, it’s nice to see Jonah Hill’s performance in Moneyball hasn’t been totally overshadowed by Brad Pitt’s more showy performance.  Also, it’s looking more and more like Bridesmaids is going to be a factor in this year’s Oscar race and the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of that.

 

Lisa Marie Considers A Better Life (dir. by Chris Weitz)


I recently had a chance to see A Better Life, the new film from director Chris Weitz that a lot of critics have already predicted will be a major contender for all sorts of awards at the end of the year.

A few critics have said that A Better Life is similar to the classic Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves.  Look, let’s be honest.  A Better Life is Bicycle Thieves except Rome has been replaced by Los Angeles and the Italian father-and-son are now an Illegal immigrant and his son (played by Demian Birchir and Jose Julian, both of whom give award-worthy performances).  While Julian struggles to resist the temptation to get involved with gangs, Birchir struggles to pay the bills as a gardener.  Eventually, Birchir manages to purchase a truck even though he knows that just by driving, he’s increasing the risk of being caught and deported back to Mexico.  However, after only one day, the truck is stolen.  Unable (because of their own status as illegal aliens) to turn to the police, Birchir and Julian embark on an increasingly dangerous quest through the shadows of Los Angeles, searching for their truck and everything that it represents (i.e., the better life of the title).

As a director, Chris Weitz takes a low-key, rather subdued approach to the material.  While the cinematography emphasizes the idea of Los Angeles being both seductive and remote at the same time, Weitz focuses our attention on Birchir’s worn, world-weary face.  Each line and wrinkle on that face tells us a different story of struggle and, ultimately, hope for a better life and a better future.  Weitz slips up a little during the film’s final act.  Some of the dialogue gets a bit too heavy-handed, despite the skill with which Bircher and Julian deliver it.  It’s in these scenes that we suddenly start to see the hand of the filmmakers and suddenly, we’re no longer watching the story of a proud man sacrificing so his son can have a better life.  Instead, we’re suddenly reminded that we’re watching a movie. 

I have to admit that, as time has passed, I’ve become a bit less enthusiastic about A Better Life.  It’s one of those films that carries a lot of power when you first see it but then, once you’ve had some time to think about it, it becomes obvious that you’re not so much reacting to what the film is as much as what you wish the film was.  When I first saw A Better Life, much like a lot of critics, I thought I was seeing one of the best films of 2011.  In retrospect, A Better Life is one of the better films (so far) of 2011 but hardly the best.  What it is ultimately is a well-made film that struggles under the weight of its own good intentions.

Still, as I watched A Better Life, I couldn’t help but remember a crowd-pleasing scene from last year’s The Kids Are All Right.  If you’ll remember, that’s the film where Julianne Moore is a professional landscaper who deals with the guilt of having an affair with Mark Ruffalo by yelling at, abusing, and eventually firing Luis, the Mexican who works for her.  You may remember Moore snapping, “What are you looking at!?” and Luis replying with, “I am not looking at anything, that is just my face.”  The line, of course, is delivered in a thick accent and the scene where Moore actually does fire him is largely played for laughs.  We don’t see Luis again for the rest of the movie though Moore does get a throw-away line about how she wishes she hadn’t fired him (probably because she now has to do all dangerous physical labor herself). 

Now. I have to admit that scene bothered me when I saw it and it has bothered me since.  I doubt that the liberal audiences that flocked to see The Kids Are All Right would have found it as hilarious if Julianne Moore had unfairly fired an African-American character who spoke in exaggerated ebonics.  It was as if the audience members were so exhausted from patting themselves on the back for watching a movie that pretended to be about lesbians that they were relieved to have an ethnic stereotype to laugh at. 

To me, it’s because of scenes like that one that we will always need films like A Better Life.