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.

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Film Review: Song to Song (dir by Terrence Malick)


You’re watching a movie called Song to Song.  It’s about beautiful people in a beautiful city.

In this case, the city is Austin, Texas.  The people are all involved in the Austin music scene and they’re played by actors like Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, and Cate Blanchett.  A good deal of Song to Song was filmed at the Austin City Limits festival and several real-life musicians appear as themselves, though only Patti Smith is on screen long enough to make much of an impression.  To be honest, both the music and Austin are almost incidental to the film.  Though the movie was sold as an Austin film and it premiered at SXSW, it could have just as easily taken place in Ft. Worth.

The film is made up of short, deliberately obscure shots.  The camera never stops moving, floating over images of sunsets, sunrises, and oddly empty streets.  Because the film was shot with a wide-angle lens, you’re never not aware of the expanse around the characters.  At times, all of those beautiful film stars run the risk of become specks on the landscape, as if the film itself is taunting the characters for thinking that they are more important than nature.

Who are the characters?  It’s not always easy to say.  There are plenty of voice overs but it’s rare that anyone directly states what they’re thinking or who they are.  When the characters speak to each other, they mumble.  The dialogue is a mix of the banal and the portentous, a sure sign of a film that was largely shot without a script.  Eventually, you turn on the captioning so that you can at least understand what everyone’s muttering.

Michael Fassbender plays Cook.  Cook appears to be a music producer but he could just as easily be a businessman who enjoys hanging out with and manipulating aspiring stars.  People seem to know him but nobody seems to be particularly impressed by him.  Cook spends a lot of time standing in front of a pool.  Is it his pool?  Is it his house? It’s hard to say.  Cook is obsessed with control or maybe he isn’t.  Halfway through the film, Fassbender appears to turn into his character from Shame.

Ryan Gosling is BV.  BV appears to be a lyricist, though it’s never made clear what type of songs that he writes.  At one point, you think someone said that he had written a country song but you may have misheard.  BV appears to have an estranged relationship with his dying father.  BV may be a romantic or he may not.  He seems to fall in love easily but he spends just as much time staring at the sky soulfully and suggesting that he has a hard time with commitment.  BV appears to be Cook’s best friend but sometimes, he isn’t.  There’s a random scene where BV accuses Cook of cheating him.  It’s never brought up again.

Rooney Mara is Faye.  Faye contributes most of the voice overs and yet, oddly, you’re never sure who exactly she is.  She appears to be BV’s girlfriend and sometimes, she appears to be Cook’s girlfriend.  Sometimes, she’s in love and then, just as abruptly, she’s not.  She may be a singer or she may be a songwriter.  At one point, she appears to be interviewing Patty Smith so maybe she’s a music journalist.  The film is centered around her but it never makes clear who she is.

Natalie Portman is Rhonda.  Rhonda was a teacher but now she’s a waitress.  She might be religious or she might not.  She might be married to Cook or she might not.  Her mother (Holly Hunter) might be dying or she might not.

And there are other beautful people as well.  Cate Blanchett plays a character named Amanda.  Amanda has a relationship with one of the characters and then vanishes after four scenes.  There’s an intriguing sadness to Blanchett’s performance.  Since the first cut of Song to Song was 8 hours long, you can assume her backstory was left on the cutting room floor.  (And yet strangely, it works that we never know much about who Amanda is.)  Lykke Li shows up, presumably playing herself but maybe not.  Berenice Marlohe and Val Kilmer also have small roles, wandering in and out of the character’s lives.

There’s a lot of wandering in this movie.  The characters wander through their life, stopping only to kiss each other, caress each other, and occasionally stare soulfully into the distance.  The camera seems to wander from scene to scene, stopping to occasionally focus on random details.  Even the film’s timeline seems to wander, as you find yourself looking at Rooney Mara’s forever changing hair and using it as a roadmap in your attempt to understand the film’s story.

“I went through a period when I thought sex had to be violent,” Rooney Mara’s voice over breathlessly explains, “We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss.”

As you watch Song to Song, you find yourself both intrigued and annoyed.  This is a Terrence Malick film, after all.  You love movies so, of course, you love Malick.  Even if his recent films have been flawed and self-indulgent, he is a true original.  You want to support him because he’s an artist but, as you watch Song to Song, the emphasis really does seem to be on self-indulgence.  The images are beautiful but the characters are so empty and the voice overs are so incredibly pretentious.  Should you be mad or should you be thankful that, in this time of cinematic blandness, there’s a director still willing to follow his own vision?

At times, Song to Song is brilliant.  There are images in Song to Song that are as beautiful as any that Malick has ever captured.  Sometimes, both the images and the characters are almost too beautiful.  The music business is tough and dirty but all of the images in Song to Song are clean and vibrant.

At times, Song to Song is incredibly annoying.  It’s hard not to suspect that the film would have worked better if Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara had switched roles.  Mara can be an outstanding actress with the right director (just check out her performance in Carol) but, in Song to Song, her natural blandness makes it difficult to take her seriously as whoever she’s supposed to be.  Portman has much less screen time and yet creates an unforgettable character.  Mara is in 75% of the film and yet never seems like an active participant.

At times, the film is annoyingly brilliant.  Malick’s self-indulgence can drive you mad while still leaving you impressed by his commitment to his vision.

And then, other times, the film is brilliantly annoying.  Many directors have mixed overly pretty images with pretentious voice overs but few do so with the panache of Terrence Malick.

Even fans of Terrence Malick, of which I certainly am one, will probably find Song to Song to be his weakest film.  Even compared to films like To The Wonder and Knight of Cups, Song to Song is a slow movie and there are moments that come dangerously close to self-parody.  Unlike Tree of Life, where everything eventually came together in enigmatic poignance, Song to Song often feels like less than the sum of its parts.  And yet, I can’t totally dismiss anything made by Terrence Malick.  Song to Song may be empty but it’s oh so pretty.

 

Belatedly, Here’s The First Trailer For The Snowman!


I have to admit that I kind of forgot about The Snowman.  Based on a best-selling novel and directed by Tomas Alfredson, The Snowman was one of those films that I was excited about in January but then, somehow, it continually slipped my mind that it would be coming out later this year.

Luckily, on July 19th, this trailer was released and it reminded me of The Snowman‘s existence!  Thank you, trailer!

A serial killer drama, The Snowman stars an appropriately haunted-looking Michael Fassbender.  It is scheduled to be released on October 20th, just in time to freak everyone out for Halloween!

It’s Better Than Last Stand: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, directed by Bryan Singer)


X-Men_-_ApocalypseIt is easy to forget what a big deal the first X-Men movie was in 2000.  At a time when Joel Schumacher was still the industry’s go-to director for super hero films, X-Men announced that films based on comic books did not have to be campy, silly, stupid, or feature Alicia Silverstone.  When X-Men was first released, critics and audiences were surprised to see a comic book film that was intelligent, well-acted, and actually about something.

The only people who were not shocked were those of us who grew up reading the X-Men books.  We already knew that the X-Men was about more than just heroes with super powers and flashy costumes.  We knew that the battles within the pages of the X-books were always meant to serve as a metaphor for racism and real-world prejudice and, since many of us felt like outcasts and mutants ourselves, we related to the characters.  We already knew that Magneto was often a sympathetic villain while Prof. X was not always a likable hero.  We knew that almost every battle that the X-Men fought came down to the question of whether or not different types of people could peacefully co-exist.  Unlike the critics, we were not shocked by X-Men‘s subtext.  Instead, we were just happy that Bryan Singer did not fuck things up.

All of the comic books films that have followed have owed a debt to critical and commercial success the first X-Men movie.  Without that success, there would probably have never been a Dark Knight trilogy or even an MCU.

FallofmutantsThe success of X-Men has also led to a 16 year-old franchise of movies about mutants and their struggle to live in a world that fears them.  X-Men: Apocalypse is the 9th installment in that franchise and it is based on the Fall of the Mutants storyline, which ran through several Marvel comics in 1988.

Continuing the pattern set by X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse takes place in the past, back when Charles Xavier was still James McAvoy and Magneto was still Michael Fassbender.  (Unlike Days of Future Past, neither Patrick Strewart nor Ian McKellan makes an appearance.)  The year is 1983.  Ronald Reagan is President.  The Cold War still rages.  The music is better than it is today.  Xavier is running his school for gifted mutants youngsters.  Magneto is living, under an assumed name, in Poland.  Magneto is married and has a young daughter and as soon as I saw them, I knew they were going to die.  Magneto’s family never survives.

In Egypt, an ancient and powerful mutant named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is awakened after being entombed for centuries.  Readers of the comic books will immediately recognize En Sabah Nur as Apocalypse.  Planning to destroy the world so that he can rebuild it in his own image, Apocalypse recruits his four horseman — Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto.  Apocalypse also wants to recruit Xavier to his side but Prof. X still believes that humans and mutants must learn to co-exist.

livingeraser1What’s interesting is that, even though Fassbender and McAvoy share a few scenes, this is the first X-Men film to not feature any sort of debate between Xavier and Magneto.  Magneto, one of the greatest comic book villains of all time, is actually a little boring here and, without those debates, Apocalypse lacks the subtext that distinguished the best of the previous X-Men films.  The emphasis is less on what it means to be an outsider and more on defeating Apocalypse.  Unfortunately, Apocalypse is a great character in the comic books but he does not translate well into film.  Unlike Magneto, who has several good and justifiable reasons for not trusting humanity, the film version of Apocalypse is portrayed as being pure evil and little else.  His plan to destroy the world never makes much sense and he is almost as bland as Dr. Doom in the latest Fantastic Four reboot.  Apocalypse could be any villain from any comic book movie that has been released over the past 16 years.  He could just as easily be the Living Eraser.

Apocalypse is also an origin story, showing how the modern incarnation of the X-Men first came to be.  We meet young versions of Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler (played by Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) makes a brief appearance that feels like it was mostly included to set up the character’s third stand-alone film.  Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Evan Peters also return in the roles of Mystique, the Beast, and Quicksilver.  Peters is featured in the movie’s coolest scene, though that scene is basically just a redo of Days of Future Past‘s coolest scene.

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(There’s also a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Dazzler, which I guess means that Marvel’s disco queen will eventually be appearing on movie screens.)

X-Men: Apocalypse is not as good as either First Class or Days of Future Past but it’s still better than The Last Stand.  (Since Apocalypse takes place in 1983, Scott and Jean go to see Return of the Jedi and talk about how the third film of any franchise always sucks.)  It’s entertaining but, without an interesting villain or any sort of examination of what it really means to be an outcast,  Apocalypse is also forgettable in a way that X2 and Days of Future Past never were.  As a lifelong fan of the X-Men, I could not help but be disappointed.

Plus, this movie needed more Deadpool! (Note: Deadpool is not in X-Men: Apocalypse.)

Plus, this movie needed more Deadpool! (Note: Deadpool is not in X-Men: Apocalypse.)

One thing that especially bothered me is that Days of Future Past ended with Xavier promising to explain to Wolverine why he, Scott, and Jean were all still alive despite having been killed in The Last Stand.  If you were hoping Apocalypse would clear that up, don’t hold your breath.  I guess that question will remain unanswered until the 10th film.

Speaking of which, First Class was set in the 1960s and Days of Future Past largely took place in the 70s.  Apocalypse is an 80s movie so the next installment should be set in the early 90s.  Will Scott be listening to Nirvana or will he be playing air guitar to November Rain?  I guess we’ll have to wait to find out!

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Here’s The Trailer For Assassin’s Creed!


Here’s the trailer for Assassin’s Creed!

I know next to nothing about the game that this film is based on, beyond what I’ve seen in commercials.  (Apparently, it involves a lot of building jumping.)  But the trailer features Michael Fassbender, looking all intense and haunted and sexy and that’s a good thing!

X-Men: Apocalypse Drops In With It’s Final Trailer


X-Men Apocalypse

20th Century Fox have to be feeling quite giddy and confident with their slate of blockbusters this summer. Deadpool slayed everyone that went up against it during it’s February release and has climbed the box-office charts to the levels I think even Fox executives couldn’t imagine.

Now comes it’s main comic book film property returning this summer with it’s biggest story, yet. X-Men: Apocalypse has been a storyline fans of the Marvel Mutants (not part of the MCU) have been clamoring for ever since the first X-Men film surprised everyone all the way back in 2000.

Bryan Singer returns for his 4th go-round with these new band of Merry Mutants (Hugh Jackman as Wolverine the only holdover from his original cast) with the immortal and first mutant En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse up to no good. We get a bit more of the plot in this final trailer and even more city-wide destruction (I’ll give it a pass considering it’s being committed by someone called Apocalypse and not Superman).

X-Men: Apocalypse will bring the war on May 27, 2016

X-Men Apocalypse Super Bowl TV Spot


X-Men Apocalypse

The X-Men film franchise helped usher in the this golden age of comic book films. Looking back at those early films makes for a love them or hate them reaction. The first two helped establish the beloved characters onto the bigscreen while successive sequels and spinoffs did much to try and tear down the goodwill created by the former.

Matthew Vaughn helped in the franchise course correction with the surprisingly good X-Men: First Class. Bryan Singer’s return with that film’s follow-up with X-Men: Days of Future Past was another step in the right direction. It even marked the beginning of Fox’s attempt to replicate Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe building.

X-Men: Apocalypse is suppose to help build on the foundation laid down by the last film. It also looks to be a sort of reboot of the core characters to their much younger versions. The doomsday vibe of the film really comes off well in the trailer and it shows enough action to excite fans.

Then they show a great looking Psylocke using her psy-blade in a way it was never meant to be as. Just embrace books Fox. Just embrace it instead of mucking it up.

X-Men: Apocalypse will bring the war on May 27, 2016