Monday, May 29, 2017

"Alien: Covenant"


There isn't a single moment of fear or dread in Alien: Covenant, which is just one of the many ways it is barely a distant echo of the original 1979 terror-in-space movie and its 1986 teeth-jangling sequel.  There isn't even a moment of any real surprise or discovery, just a lot of visual references to those original movies and an uncomfortable continuation of a story begun in the plodding Prometheus.

Prometheus, if you forgot, and it would be easy to forget, is a film that finally answers the never-really-asked questions of how the mysterious alien spaceship from that very first film ended up on the planet.  The explanation had to do with a race of giant humanoids who wanted to create things like the gods but ended up creating the alien, or something like that.  It's not flippant to say I don't remember: I don't.  A lot has happened in five years that distracted me from keeping the plot details of a quasi-Alien prequel at the top of my mind.  Frequently, I don't make it to the grocery store without forgetting half of the things I came for, so recalling the names and functions of all the characters from a middling movie made five years ago is beyond my mental capacity.  That's what I get for being middle-aged.

If I didn't much care for Prometheus, then why see Alien: Covenant?  Maybe it's like Barack Obama said: Hope.  One look at that long, sleek black head and those dripping teeth and you think about Ripley fighting off marauding hordes of them while carrying Newt through that about-to-explode building, and you think about how scary that first Alien movie was, and you think, "I've got to give this another chance."

Or, maybe it was just social-media peer pressure, insisting I forget about Prometheus (believe me, I've tried my best) and also the Alien vs. Predator movies, which I've thankfully never seen except in snippets on some FXXXXJr. channel at 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, and about Alien 3 (which gave us David Fincher, so it's not all bad) and also about the one with Winona Ryder.  Maybe I just got too carried away with the prospect, at long last, of another proper Alien movie directed by Ridley Scott.

Then, even before the first scene finished, most of that goodwill got jettisoned into space just like the Alien always seems to do, and by the end of the first 30 minutes the rest of it was gone, too, but I stayed on to the end, hoping and hoping and hoping something would be different.

The first scene is a joyless one, in which David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus, talks to his creator in a moment, we come to realize, that takes place many years in the past.  Then we meet the crew of the Covenant, a spaceship that is en route (for reasons never explained or even hinted at) to a distant planet to colonize it with 2,000 humans and 1,200 embryos, and apparently absolutely no training at all in science or exploration.

After the Covenant has a deep-space accident, the ship receives a static-filled distress call that -- really, as much as you may think so, I am not making any of this up to make it sound worse than it is -- the cowboy-hat-wearing Southerner named "Tennessee" instantly interprets as ... wait for it ... John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads.  What that means, of course, is that the crew decides right then and there that they've got to investigate, which maybe they might not have done so quickly if it had been a different 1970s artist.  Would Neil Diamond be so fondly remembered in 200 years?  Absent a crew member with big hair and eyeliner, would the Covenant have just floated right by a transmission emitted to the beat of a KISS song?

As any team of highly trained scientists would do, they decide they're going to scrap the mission they've all been training decades for and go ahead and just land on that new planet because, well, they're lazy.  (No, seriously, one of the crew members says something like, "Dang, we don't wanna get back in those sleep pods, we're bored already.")  So, without doing a shred of scouting, without donning any sort of protective gear -- not even the kind eighth-graders have to wear in chemistry labs -- and with absolutely no knowledge of this new planet whatsoever, they pay a visit.

Remember in the first Alien when John Hurt and Veronica Cartwright put on those amazing-looking but cumbersome spacesuits to investigate the source of the beacon?   Remember how the rest of the crew wouldn't let them in after the face-hugger burst out of that egg and latched itself to poor John Hurt?  Yeah, well, none of that happens here.  The crew of the Covenant puts on some L.L. Bean gear and starts walking around the planet they know nothing about.  One of them even -- no, I swear I am not making this up -- stops to pee and have a cigarette.

Bad stuff happens.  It gets worse when the really idiotic pilot of the landing ship decides to one of the blood-spitting, fast-dying crew members back on board, then accidentally blows up the ship when the alien bursts out of him.  So, the rest of the crew, wearing some fleece-lined corduroy outdoor jackets, is left behind.  Another one of them is infected, too, and just when you hope these really stupid people will be trapped on the planet forever, the lights will come up and the credits will roll just to be kind and save everyone from having to sit through the rest of the movie, you realize: This isn't even halfway over.

So, if you're still reading this, let me ask you a question: Have you ever heard the "brick joke," which begins with a guy building a house and realizing he has one too many bricks and throwing the last one over his shoulder, which appears to be the dumbest punchline ever, then the joke-teller tells one or two seemingly unrelated jokes, then the final one has a punchline that is something like: "The brick from the very first joke!"

Well, that's Alien: Covenant.  Because who should pop out of the middle of the wilderness but David, the humanoid robot from Prometheus and this film's prologue, who proceeds to take Alien: Covenant in a most distracting direction as he uncomfortably flirts with himself (in the guise of Walter, the Covenant's shipboard robot, also played by Fassbender) and starts spouting off some philosophies about being able to create life.  He also talks a lot about the lead character of Prometheus, and if you don't remember who that is or why she was important, Alien: Covenant isn't going to help you.

This part of the movie is a direct sequel to Prometheus, giving way, finally, to a third section that deals with the surviving crew's escape from the planet.  But at that point it had lost me.  The sheer stupidity of its main characters coupled with its inscrutable, endless references to Prometheus left me in a state that a science-fiction-horror-thriller should never leave its audience: bored.  I didn't care what happened to the crew, and I didn't care if I never see another Alien movie again.

Except Alien and Aliens.  At least we have those.  Forever.

Viewed May 29, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 27, 2017

"Berlin Syndrome"


Bleak, despairing, hopeless, shocking, disturbing, Berlin Syndrome is a vicious and intense film, an assault on the senses that tells an excruciating story but does it so impressively that it transcends its horror-thriller genre much in the way Hitchcock did with Psycho.

It might seem overly gracious to evoke the great director and one of his greatest accomplishments, but in Berlin Syndrome, director Cate Shortland takes a nasty little piece of storytelling and raises it to the level of serious filmmaking.  There's a lot to admire, but for many viewers there will also be a lot to abhor about Berlin Syndrome, in which Shortland walks right up to the boundary of acceptability and pushes on it as hard as she can without crossing over.

Last year, an execrable, inexcusable piece of trash called Don't Breathe tried to create a similar sense of dread but failed in every possible way, and while there's no comparison, it's worth noting how easily Berlin Syndrome could have been like that wretched, stinking piece of cinematic waste.  Almost nothing about Berlin Syndrome is, on the surface, at least, appealing, yet the final result is nerve-wracking, mind-bendingly tense and, if you can stand the brutality, very much worth seeing.

It begins with Clare, played by the astonishingly good Teresa Palmer, a dislocated, unhappy Australian tourist who wanders the streets of Berlin with the sort of detached melancholy that imbued Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.  She is neither a tourist nor an ex-patriate, she is a wanderer.  Just before leaving town, she runs into Andi (Max Riemelt), a handsome and gregarious local who charms Clare with his not-quite-perfect English and his frank assessment of the photographs she takes.

Clare, he insists, misunderstands his city by romanticizing its tortured, unhappy past.  Andi is just old enough to have known a divided Berlin and to have seen the effect that isolation and detachment had not just on the East but on the psyche of the entire population.  They have a daylong flirtation, then Clare tells Andi she's leaving town.

But she doesn't.  She finds him in a book shop, they admire Klimt's "Woman in Gold" painting, the one that was stolen away by the Nazis.  Andi takes her home.  Something doesn't feel right about it, but they sleep together anyway, and the next day Clare discovers that she can't leave Andi's apartment, which is tucked away in a desolate building.

Once-charming Andi has taken her captive, and Berlin Syndrome turns into both a vicious psychodrama and a twisted thriller.  Its script, by Shaun Grant, based on a novel by Melanie Joosten, creates two vividly conceived characters in Clare and Andi, and though we learn infinitely more about his violently unhinged persona than hers, Palmer and Riemelt are both compelling.  Rimelt's psychopathic calm produces a screen villain who genuinely belongs in the ranks of Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter.  Palmer, on the other hand, is given a difficult task: Convey Clare's shock and anguish, her psychological despair, and a troubling descent into a state of acceptance -- while never losing our sympathy.

Berlin Syndrome is the horror version of the Oscar-winning Room, and though its horror-movie leanings prevent it from being taken as seriously as that harrowing drama that doesn't diminish its effectiveness.  This is a brutal, violent movie -- though its on-screen bloodshed is limited to just two tough-to-watch scenes, the psychological torture is even more disturbing.

But it's also a film that, should you make it through to the end (and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't) is not one you'll easily forget.  Berlin Syndrome puts the audience through a similar plight as its lead character: You want to hate every moment, but as much as you try it holds you in a shocked, fascinated, terrified thrall.

Viewed May 27, 2017 -- Arclight Hollywood


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Star Wars" at 40

Five years ago, the collective critical (and audience) raspberry that greeted John Carter led me to think about what kind of reaction the original Star Wars might have faced if it had been released today.  Somehow, this essay became the single-most read item I've posted on my blog to date -- so as Star Wars turns 40, it seemed appropriate to run it again.  

Bear in mind, the below is fully imaginary and in no way reflects my own view of Star Wars.

By the way, for anyone not well-versed in Star Wars lore, that little factoid at the end of the first paragraph is actually true.  Star Wars opened in just 32 theaters on May 25, 1977, not because it was a brilliant stroke of marketing genius, but because that's how many theaters were willing to play it.

** of *****

If robots who talk with fussy British accents, men in gorilla suits and endless laser-gun fights are your thing, then by all means give Star Wars a try, but don’t say you weren’t properly warned.  It’s a movie with such lousy buzz that even exhibitors who got advance screenings wouldn’t book it into their theaters.

To help defray undoubted losses on the reported $10 million budget – that’s twice the cost of an average movie these days – Fox finally managed to dump this bloated Saturday-matinee kiddie feature into a measly 32 screens on Memorial Day, a holiday better known for quick vacations than spending time in the dark.  At this rate, Fox will take whatever it can get, though its executives were smart enough to sell the rights away to writer-director George Lucas, who showed so much promise with the vastly superior, smarter American Graffiti.

In Star Wars, no-name actors (the biggest marquee name is Debbie Reynolds’ daughter) do their best to recite the kind of dialogue that might have already seemed dated when Buster Crabbe used it in the ‘30s.  They’re joined by some pained-looking, senior-citizen British names like Alec Guinness and, briefly, Peter Cushing, who ostensibly lend an air of credibility to the otherwise brainless goings-on, which have all been done before in Western and war movies -- for a fraction of the cost.

It’s a shame, really, because there are some nice touches, including truly groundbreaking special-effects work and a rousing score by John Williams that cribs more than a bit from Holst’s The Planets, but otherwise enlivens the ridiculously and unnecessarily convoluted plot.

See if you can keep up with me here: In another galaxy “a long time ago” (how’s that for originality?), an Imperialist government is waging a “civil war,” though exactly who is fighting who and why is never even addressed.  Note to the young director: If you’re going to use the word “war” in your title, you might do the audience the courtesy of explaining what the war is all about.

All we know for sure is the bad guys are so bad that the chief villain, the awkwardly named Darth Vader (yes, it’s that kind of a B-movie – and the hero’s last name is Skywalker), traipses around wearing black … with a cloak, no less.  He’s built a death ray that can blow up entire planets, so take that, Mr. Khruschev.  Someone has stolen the plans for the space station and hidden them inside a robot with instructions to deliver them to an old man on a planet that’s entirely made out of desert.

Meanwhile, a young boy finds the robot and gets hunted down by the bad guys while he learns about an ancient religion from an old neighbor, and together off the two go to hire a solider of fortune to help them get the robot back to where it belongs – and, of course, wouldn’t you know it, they stumble right into the path of the war, where they become unlikely heroes and save the day.  

If you’re exhausted reading that, just wait until you see Star Wars – though, given the utter lack of faith theater owners and Fox seem to have in it, it will be quite a feat if you do see it, outside of a 10 a.m. show some Saturday.  Star Wars may be just fine for the kids, but they’re not the audience that matters to Hollywood, and really Star Wars is just a small pit stop on the way to the summer’s most eagerly awaited films for grown-ups, like A Bridge Too FarThe Deep and Fox’s lavish The Other Side of Midnight.

But Star Wars is worthy of attention not only because of its exorbitant budget and what it says about the gambles involved with selecting and making films – but also because there are a few gems buried in this breathlessly paced nonsense, like the aforementioned score and the uncanny ability of Alec Guinness to speak lines like, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” with a straight face.

Particularly uncritical children may enjoy it; for adults, it’s a loud, crashing bore, an ill-advised attempt to transfer the undeniable charms of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon into a big-screen, mega-budgeted spectacle.

Perhaps the low point of a film rife with them is the big cross between a bear and a dog, played by a man in a fur suit.  Just how unsophisticated did Lucas think his audience would be?

Star Wars will come and go quickly, so if you really want to try to make sense of its byzantine plot (communicated at the start by a visually impressive, endlessly wordy “introduction” that scrolls up the screen), you’d better check it out while you can; with such few theaters in the entire country playing it, it will have closed and moved on to smaller markets within the next couple of weeks.  Just don't say I didn't try to warn you.

Without doubt, Star Wars isn’t entirely unworthy – any movie that features American Graffiti’s Harrison Ford  shouting “yahoo!” can’t be all bad – but for those who prefer even a sprinkling of substance to their movie entertainment, this is one surround-sound "spectacle" you can skip.

Almost everything in this barely released, barely marketed mess of a movie has been done before, more cheaply and with infinitely greater charm and memorability.  For some, Star Wars may prove a decent momentary diversion (best to check your brain at the theater door) before we get on to the meat of the summer.

Lucas has said he created Star Wars as a throwback and homage to the kinds of movies he grew up with.  Sorry, Mr. Lucas, everything you’ve put up on screen has been done before – using 99.5% less money – and been done better. I liked Star Wars a lot more the first time they did it, back when it was called Buck Rogers.   

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"


When the first Guardians of the Galaxy was released three years ago, the experience seemed to me something like eating at McDonald's, albeit without the cinematic equivalent of food shaming that someone who eats at McDonald's (yeah, guilty as charged) frequently experiences.

Now here's the second Guardians of the Galaxy, which does nothing at all, for better or worse, to change my first impression.  A Big Mac you eat tomorrow will taste exactly like the one you had a few months ago and exactly like the one you'll eat again at some point -- and in the same fashion Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is pretty much a replay of the first.  In the same way each hamburger comes with maybe a little bit more or less Secret Sauce, and the bun might be toasted just a little differently, there are some variations between this film and the last, but the point of both is to give you precisely the experience you paid to have.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has same pros and cons, the same good points and bad points, the same laughs and groans, the same basic overall thrust as the first.  If you're one of the Marvel faithful, you'll have a fantastic time and might find many reasons that Vol 2 is better than the first.  For those of us who are generally less than entranced by Marvel Studios films will find, rather surprisingly, that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to be more entertaining, more enjoyable, less reliant knowing the "canon" than other Marvel movies.

That doesn't mean, though, that it's an entirely standalone film.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like so many sequels, dispenses with any need to explain itself, its characters or its story -- you either know what you're getting into or you don't, and if you don't, the movie's not going to be of any help.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is mostly made for the legion of fans who have seen the first film over and over and over, which means that its first 20 minutes or so are just about incomprehensible to casual viewers.

And while those first moments end up being critical to following along as the story progresses, it turns out the story is much less important to enjoying the show as you might expect.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is something like the equivalent of a TV sitcom from before the days of Netflix-style "propulsive serialization," when you could turn on the show and grab a few chuckles even if you didn't entirely understand the story or the characters.

All you need to know is that this ragtag bunch of heroes argue and bicker and make a lot of pop-culture in-jokes, and that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) kind of have a thing for each other, that big hulking Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket the Racoon (Bradley Cooper) are the wisecrackers, and that little Baby Groot (credited to Vin Diesel, which seems kind of strange) is adorable and vaguely dumb.

They run into a variety of people, some good, some bad, and some of dubious intention, and just like you don't ask what the story is when you stumble on to Season 4, Episode 16 of Three's Company, you don't ask it here, either.  Just go with it or don't.  Even if you try to resist, you'll find -- sorry to mix sci-fi franchses -- that it's futile.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a merry time filler, a total lark that cost a bewildering amount of money to create but that will be pleasing to those with an inclination.

Throughout, though, I wondered at what point the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" will become boring to audiences.  So far, it's shown very little sign of waning, but like the Star Wars movies is there a point at which such a tightly constructed "universe" will become repetitive and dull?  How awful it would be if every single story we were told on film -- from a black-and-white independent film to a drama with Meryl Streep to a musical extravaganza -- were required to stick within the same constraints of storytelling.  The point of filmmaking, is used to seem to me, is to be able to envision any sort of story, to find a connection with an audience by introducing them to a life or a world they didn't know existed.

That's most certainly not the case with Marvel films or with most studio "franchises" these days.  Reflexivity and self-adulation seems to be the point, the narrower and more condensed a film's point of view can be, the better -- audiences seem mostly to want what they've seen before, rather than what they haven't.

That dark and dismal thought kept entering my mind even as I was giggling at many of the jokes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is exactly the movie audiences wanted to see, not more and not less.

Viewed May 14, 2017 -- AMC Burbank 16


Saturday, May 13, 2017

"The Lovers"


Their house looks like all the others, and so, Mary and Michael have come to realize, do their lives.  Not that they would ever go to a party, but if they did and they were asked how they met, they might look at each other quizzically and wonder why they can't remember that detail.

But their tidy, beige home with its tidy earth-toned furniture isn't where we first meet either of them, because they try to spend as little time there as they can.  Mary is having an affair with a vaguely handsome writer, and she gets a little giddy because it's forbidden.  Michael is having an affair with a vaguely pretty ballet teacher, and he gets a little giddy because it's forbidden.

During the day, each of them escapes a drab, cubicle-bound existence to spend time with a lover. It's quite likely Mary has figured out Michael's affair, and vice-versa, but neither one of them has an inclination to say anything because of that beige house and earth-toned life.  Both of them are sure of one thing: As soon as their son comes home from college to visit, they are going to reveal their secret lives to the family and start anew.

But as they head toward this fixed-date destiny, something happens.  Affairs, it turns out, work both ways, and Mary and Michael start to realize that they can cheat on their secret lovers with ... each other.  And they can like it.  Their own marriage becomes something vaguely dangerous, something mildly passionate.

The Lovers is a small movie about small lives, but treats the predicament of a frumpy, sedate middle-aged couple with respect, humor and a rather stunning amount of style.  Director Azael Jacobs has that sharp-edged independent spirit, but brings a dark, shimmering hue to the film, both visually and audibly, through a lush and striking score by Mandy Hoffman, which provides a rich, flowing counterpart to the stillness of the movie and its characters -- they may be stuck in their lives, but the film's grand music takes them soaring in a way their own hearts can't express.

It's an odd film, not for all tastes, with a strange pace that is as morose as Mary and Michael to begin with, but builds and builds into a third act that brings an unexpected emotional suspense along with an ending that proves to be a clever surprise.

As Mary, Debra Winger makes a welcome return to the big screen in a rare kind of role -- not at all glamorous but hinting at a secret aspiration to passion, a return to the kind of life she hoped for but never got.  Winger finds a delicate middle-ground for Mary that's somewhere between exhaustion and optimism.

Tracy Letts, best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County, is Michael, Mary's fair-haired, big-bellied and droopy husband who is as surprised as she is that he's still stuck in the cubicle, still paying the mortgage, still coasting along.  He seems more drab as a character until a third-act revelation that thoroughly reframes his character -- and hers, too.

He drops the minor bombshell on the girlfriend of his visiting son, who imagines, rightly, that his father is a philanderer but has never considered his mother as anything but the put-upon spouse.   Tyler Ross is angst-ridden and angry as the son, and he's fine, as is Jessica Sula as his curious girlfriend.  The only real trouble spot among the actors is Melora Walters as Michael's fidgety, anxious, emotionally frail girlfriend.  If it's easy to see why Mary might have fallen for her more soulful writer (Aiden Gillen), it's downright impossible to know what Michael sees in a woman who comes across as emotionally needy and vindictive.

Yet maybe that's the point.  Maybe we can't possibly know what they could see in other people, much less in each other -- because, The Lovers discovers, they don't really know themselves.  The Lovers is a clever reminder that Tolstoy was only half right: Yes, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but Mary and Michael make you wonder: Is any family, or any couple, really ever completely happy?  Isn't marriage mostly a struggle to make it through the difficult moments and find a way toward a kind of self-centered form of happiness?

The path toward that sort of happiness twists and turns in unusual ways. The lovers in The Lovers do their best to navigate it, difficult and hazardous as it may be.

Viewed May 13, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks