Director: Ridley Scott
Much like the previous Alien movie, Prometheus, Covenant is an uneven tale with some magnificent visuals.
My full review of 2012's Prometheus is here, but for those who don't know, can't remember, or have willfully wiped their memory of it, the basic tale is thus: in the year 2093, a crew of space explorers arrives on a distant planet, where various clues on Earth have guided them. The working theory is that this new planet may provide further hints about an alien race which may have created all life on Earth. When the crew arrive, they find a massive spacecraft filled with wonderfully advanced and terrifyingly lethal biological weaponry. This weaponry, which includes creatures seen in the previous Alien movies, kills all but two members of the crew: Doctor Elizabeth Shaw and the android David. Shaw and David narrowly escape the planet, with the intent of finding the beings that left behind such nefarious creatures of pure destruction.
Flash forward a decade. The massive spacecraft Covenant is on its way to a new planet, filled with a couple thousand human colonists and the ship's crew, all under stasis for the long trip. When things go wrong, the crew is awoken and they find themselves heading towards a planet from which they receive strange audio which sounds like music from Earth. Once on the planet of origin, they make discoveries as to the fate of the survivors of the Prometheus disaster a decade before their voyage.
Right off, I have to say that Covenant does address one of my beefs about Prometheus, regarding the nature of the android David. And while is is annoying to learn that these were left for a sequel to explain, I did find the explanations quite satisfactory. In fact, the explanations become the primary plot point and arguably most interesting element of Covenant.
Another merit of the movie is, unsurprisingly, the visuals. Between some marvelous set pieces, stunning landscapes, slick costumes, and excellent CGI, the movie looks great. There are also a few action sequences that were far better than anything I recall from Prometheus, including the penultimate showdown with the obligatory xenomorph. No, none of it comes close to topping the many great scenes in James Cameron's Aliens, but there was improvement, to be sure.
Viewers should also not be surprised to learn that the acting is solid. Michael Fassbinder is the headliner, and of course he continues his chilly portrayal of the androids David and Walter. The rest of the cast is also strong, even if Billy Crudup's neurotic performance didn't do his character any real favors. And this brings up the characters.
One of my major problems with Prometheus was the lack of characters who were either really intelligent or at least worth caring about. I was disappointed to learn that Covenant did not make any real strides in this department. Much like the crew of the Prometheus, the crew of the Covenant come off as bafflingly ill-equipped to deal with difficult situations. Anyone who does just a little homework on space travel knows that astronauts go through rigorous training and are very closely vetted for their abilities to remain cool under pressure. This includes when things go terribly wrong, including losing fellow crew members. Yet, several members of the Covenant seem to lack that even keel, breaking down and over-reacting to nearly every crisis. There is also a lack of organic emotion in the story, with deeply-felt bonds being forced down our throats rather than allowed to emerge more naturally. This is a real shame, as it takes much of the steam out of scenes that are meant to be moving or at least tense.
Perhaps the most disappointing element of the movie is that too many components felt like mere retreads of ideas long since overused in the Alien film series and copied by lesser imitators. While there are some concepts and themes that are new to these tales, many of the horror elements are all too familiar and far too easy to anticipate.
The litmus test for me with science-fiction movies has always been the strength of my desire to watch them again after my first viewing. Covenant does pass this basic subjective requirement, although just barely. As stunning as many of the visuals are, I won't bother seeing it again in the theater, rather waiting for home release. In doing a tad bit of research on the future of the series, I did come across a few somewhat disconcerting quotes from series honcho Ridley Scott, implying that he may just be spinning the entire series into a possibly endless "franchise" - a term which he seems to use almost disdainfully. On paper, the quotes almost suggest that the mere existence of these recent Alien movies are at least in some form a middle finger from Scott to the viewing public, which might explain the lack of creativity, relative to the earliest and best entries into the series. I hope this isn't the case, and that any future films can realize their full potential more completely. Prometheus and Covenant have come up a bit short, even if they are just engaging enough to merit more than one viewing.
Spoiler Section - You've Been Warned
A few specific reactions:
Firstly, I think one problem I have regards the pace. In very short order, things start to go tragically wrong, with protagonist Daniels losing her husband in a brutal, fiery accident. From that horrible moment, there is a dark shadow lurking over the film that even the few attempts at levity can't escape. When one looks at the best science-fiction/action/adventure/thriller movies, including Alien and Aliens, there was always a slow buildup to the disaster and terror. Those movies spend a good thirty minutes or more allowing us to know the characters in more relaxed and often humorous scenes. We never get that with Covenant, which lowers the emotional stakes. As other crew members start dropping like flies, I can't say that I knew or cared much about any of them, which is a far cry from how I felt about many of the deaths in the first two movies. When the crew members of the Nostromo or the space marines in Aliens start dying, there was a real sense of loss. Covenant didn't offer nearly as much of that as I had hoped.
Just how is it that the writers of Prometheus and Covenant either can't or won't write authentic characters? There are plenty of examples in this most recent film, but one standout example will suffice to make my point. After Daniels's husband, who is also the crew captain, is killed in the accident, Oram assumes command. However, right from the jump, he shows a lack of backbone and leadership acumen that is baffling to say the least. This is a man who was supposedly tested and vetted to be second in command of what I assume is a trillion-dollar colonization mission on a distant planet. And at the first sign that he'll have to actually lead people, he crumbles like an eight-year-old who forgot his book report. This was yet another area where the original two films cast these more recent ones in such poor light - nearly all of the characters actually make the right decisions and show great survival instincts and skills; it's just that the xenomorph(s) are frighteningly adept killing machines.
As for the originality, it seems as though Ridley Scott and his chosen writers are tapped out of ideas when it comes to the xenomorphs themselves. Yes, we get an air-born, inhalant version of a xenomorph, and a couple of creatures that bear a different complexion and slightly different body structures. But mostly, we get the same types of chest-burster, face-hugger, and drop-from-the-rafters scenes that we've had in nearly every other Alien movie. Even though Prometheus introduces the ideas of an array of variant pathogens and lethal organisms, the movies seem to just rest on what was successful long in the past.
It wasn't all bad, though. I actually like what they did with David's story. While the notions about artificial intelligence going rogue would probably have been fresher about 15 or 20 years ago, it is still a fascinating topic, and the enigma of David and his goals is intriguing enough to keep much of the story interesting. Upon further reflection, it does seem that the film could have revealed David's secrets more gradually and skillfully, creating greater tension. As it was, though, it was fairly compelling.
I'll also say that the penultimate action sequence was solid. While other elements of the movie were not terribly original, the fight on the landing platform between Daniels and the xenomorph, with the craft attempting to escape the planet, is the stuff of excellent big-screen, blockbuster action. It was actually far more memorable and exciting than any of the action sequences in Prometheus, which was sadly lacking in that department.
The "twist" at the end? Come on. Is there anyone who couldn't see that coming from a mile away? I'm not always the swiftest to pick up on such things, but even I knew that Walter was David from the moment we didn't actually see the end of their hand-to-hand fight. On top of that, is there an Alien movie with more of a downer ending than this one? Maybe Alien3, but at least that film concluded on an act of self-sacrificing heroism. I'm not against downer endings, when there is a greater message or suggestion being presented, but this one just seemed downright twisted. I suppose that the nearly-inevitable sequel could help take the edge off of it, and it may actually be a great straight-up action movie a la Aliens, but seeing David basically win does leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
Director: James Gunn
Really fun follow-up to 2014's first Guardians film.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the 15th movie in the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Unlike most of the MCU films in the last several years, though, a viewer does not need to see multiple previous MCU films to fully enjoy this one. Seeing the original Guardians movie is really the only recommended prerequisite to staying up to speed with volume 2.
Volume 2 does a really nice job offering a different narrative from the first movie. Whereas much of the first was a typical "meet the players and get the team together" tale, this one involves seeing how the five "Guardians" deal with themselves and relationships their teammates while being splintered from some of the others. Circumstances force several of them to ally themselves with enemies introduced in the first movie. While this device can feel a bit awkward and forced in other movies, writer and director James Gunn handles it well. We get some fun combinations of heroes, anti-heroes, and outright villains in ways that are often highly entertaining.
Probably the one element that separated the first Guardians movie from other MCU offerings is the highly playful, irreverent tone. The sequel gives us just as much subversiveness as the first, and perhaps even a little more. While there are certainly a few moments that go for sentimentality, they are done fairly well, and they never rob the movie of its seemingly primary goal of kicking the legs out from under many standard tropes of action/adventure movies. It's not an easy balance to maintain, but Gunn has shown himself rather adept at the trick.
The humor is still right on par with the first movie, as well. While not every one-liner or gag lands perfectly, more than enough of them do. It helps to have several actors with solid comic chops, most notably Chris Pratt, Michael Rooker, and Bradley Cooper's voicing of Rocket. These and several other lesser players strike just the right balance between the rollicking intensity and the snarky fun that have become the hallmark of this segment of the MCU. One of my big concerns for this movie, after seeing the trailers, was that the movie would overdo the "cute" factor with Baby Groot. Fortunately, Gunn didn't lean too much on the admittedly adorable tiny version of the ponderous tree creature. Groot certainly has his moments, but I didn't feel that he was shoe-horned into scenes just to keep the attention of viewers under the age of 10.
One of my few issues with the first Guardians film was that the third act devolved into a fairly typical massive-scale fireworks show against a one-dimensional villain. Though Volume 2 certainly ends with plenty of color, explosions, and manic action, the primary adversary shows a little more creativity and novelty than the rather dull Ronan of the first film. This villain isn't exactly the most sophisticated or complex in terms of their grand scheme, but they are a relatively unique entity, not unlike Dormammu in Doctor Strange.
In the grand scheme of the MCU, I have this one in the upper half of the canon. I don't find it quite as consistent, imaginative, or fresh as what I've found to be the very best movies (The Winter Soldier and the first Avengers are still my favorites). But this is still a great popcorn movie that offers fans of the first film the same brand of fun, with a welcome dash of alterations to the original. I'm already planning to go to a second viewing.
Spoilers Ahead - Fair Warning
So just a couple of things about certain, specific plot and character elements.
Firstly, I'm pretty happy with how the characters were handled, all around. One of my few gripes about the first movie was that we didn't get to see quite enough of Drax or Gamorrah fighting, given that they were reputedly galaxy-class weapons of destruction. We get a somewhat better idea of it in this one. I especially like the showdown between Gamorrah and Nebula on Ego's planet. Nebula reaches the potential suggested in the first movie. As for Drax, I love how he's written and handled - his penchant for bellowing laughter in the most awkward or dangerous situations just doesn't get old to me. Nor does his oblivious disregard for social niceties.
Curiously, I didn't exactly find Ego to be the most compelling villain. I think his nature as "The Living Planet" is actually interesting and creative, but once again Marvel comes up with a villain whose ultimate plan is basically to simply take over the universe. For what, exactly? Well, that's not made completely clear. I will admit that Ego does a better job of justifying and explaining it than certain other superhero movies (I'm looking at you, Thor: The Dark World and Suicide Squad), but it's still nowhere near as fascinating as a well-conceived, if smaller-scale, villain like Civil War's Zemo.
I'm curious to see just how the Guardians tie into next year's Infinity Gauntlet, seeing as how Starlord presumably no longer has the power to handle Infinity Stones. I feel that Nebula is more likely to play some sort of direct role in the tale, given her burning desire to avenge herself upon her sadistic, adopted father Thanos. This was a nice setup to that massive picture for next year, without having it feel terribly forced in this one.
Gritty, grimy, and blood-drenched, this is the Wolverine movie that any grown-up fan of the character has craved. It's arguably the best of the entire X-Men movie series, and definitely the gutsiest and most unique.
Being a spoiler-free review, I'll keep the description to broad, non-revealing strokes. Set in a not-too-distant future, Logan is almost completely alone and trying to live a very quiet existence within a nearly mutant-free world. He is caring for Charles Xavier, the former headmaster of the school which took Logan in and made him a part of the X-Men. Charles is now in his 90s, with his health greatly deteriorated. Logan himself is not exactly in tip-top shape either, for reasons which are not very clear through much of the movie. The two aged and ailing friends' lone dream is to simply buy a boat on which to live out their remaining days on the ocean, away from the rest of humanity. This modest pursuit of peace is brutally interrupted when a mysterious little girl comes into their lives, with an army on her trail. A reluctant Logan must wrestle with exactly what to do, while evading and fending off their aggressive and violent attackers.
The movie is the most assured X-Men movie yet, and it's quite possibly the most assured "marquee" superhero movie ever made. There are no flashy outfits. No ensemble cast of scene-stealing, wise-cracking comrades. No fantastic set pieces. The settings are often composed of the swirling dust of the desert, the loneliness of the open roads between west Texas and the Dakotas, and the eerie quiet of a few forests. Also missing is the typically snappy, "joke-a-minute" banter that you find in the other X-movies and the MCU (most of which I love, by the way). The conversations in this film carry more weight, as they delve into Logan dealing with his rage and apathy and how they are drowning out a chance to win back some part of his soul. And this is done without pretension or forced, awkward dialogue for the most part. It's a rare look at a mythical figure in his final days, being forced to take a final reckoning of exactly who he is.
Of course, don't think that it's just a depressing slog with a couple of broken down old mutants having a heart-to-heart road trip. Or a withered old Wolverine staring at his shoes for two hours. This movie is easily the most brutal and graphically violent mainstream superhero flick made to date. While Deadpool was bloody, it was mostly cartoonish violence in which the gore was for comedic effect. In Logan, the fights are gut-wrenchingly graphic and almost painful to watch at times. But this is to great effect, as brutal violence was almost always at the heart of the Wolverine character. What came later, and is central to this film, is the man Logan's struggle to live with that violence and its consequences. And the fatal consequences have actual impact in this movie, thanks to the measured pace. The balance between the deadly battles and their horrific nature is done exceptionally well.
While there are a few things one can quibble over, especially comic book and science-fiction nerds like myself, I found that the questionable details were minor ones that do not cripple the story. Any superhero movie asks you to suspend your disbelief in a few major ways, and Logan is no different. What Mangold and the writers created here easily transcends any little goofs. It's a superhero movie that really stands alone in the genre, and it feels far more like an update of a classic Western in the style of The Shootist. The bar for these movies has now been set a bit higher, and now we'll see if the MCU or DCEU film franchises try to match or exceed it.
Paterson, like nearly all Jim Jarmusch films, may not be to everyone's taste. It does not rely on unique drama or compelling plot to rein in viewers. Instead, it takes a quiet, careful, and often amusing look into the life of an ostensibly average guy who has the soul, eye, and writing ability of a great poet. The title character (Adam Driver) plays a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He is a quiet, unassuming, and pleasant person who goes through his daily routines and does his job without flair or drama. But he writes poems when inspiration strikes him, which is often at times and places that most of us would not expect. He finds beauty and emotion in his relationship with his artistic and quirky wife, Lara (Golshifteh Farahani), in the little objects laying around his home, in the natural and man-made structures along his walk between work and home, and any number of other moments and materials that surround him on a daily basis. Throughout the day, he steals little moments to cast his observations and feelings into expertly-crafted poems, which he keeps in a simple notebook but shows to nobody, including his beloved wife.
As with others of Jarmusch's movies, Paterson stays away from conventional storytelling in many ways. Although there are a few moments of tension here and there, no grand conflict emerges. There is no great battle in which the protagonist must engage, and if he changes at all, it is only in the subtlest of ways. But this is what makes a movie like this special. Like the best poetry, the movie is a beautifully captured portrait of something special which goes unnoticed by virtually everyone around it. There doesn't need to be a profound message or lesson to it. Instead, the purpose of a movie like this is to show us something in the world that is, while ostensibly mundane, filled with moments that can inspire awe and joy. Paterson may not be an outwardly impressive person, but he's found a sort of balanced happiness in his simple life. If one weren't privy to his inner thoughts, it might seem strange and even extremely boring. But by showing us the man's inner world through his poetry, we can get a far better idea of how and why he lives a wonderfully fulfilling life, as he sees and defines it.
I can't say that I found the movie flawless. The character of Paterson's wife, Laura, smacks a tiny bit of the "manic pixie dreamgirl" trope, being an odd, ever-shifting but always cheery font of positivity. And as seen in other Jarmusch films, dialogue is not necessarily his strong suit. There are certainly some very funny lines, but it does not always feel completely organic. Fortunately, the film's strengths don't rest on either of these things, so they don't greatly weaken the movie. The excellent performances of the primary actors easily outweigh any minor shortcomings of the script.
Paterson will not be for everyone. It has a calm, deliberate pace, and a purposeful lack of high drama. Those who enjoy more traditional stories in which a hero emerges, faces down some form of antagonist, and ultimately triumphs, will perhaps not have the patience for this movie. It is a long piece of Zen poetry cast onto film. For those in the mood for such a thing, you'll likely find this one to be a modern masterpiece. It's not a movie that I'll feel the need to watch again and again, but I am quite sure that I will eventually be in the right state of mind to again take in and appreciate the sublime portrait that Jarmusch has created for us.
It's Oscar time, with nominations being released in late January. This is always the time that I scramble to see the major nominees that I missed through the year, so here we go. (No spoilers for any movies)
La La Land (2016)
Director: Damien Chazelle
A good movie, though one that I think is a bit overhyped, given its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations and virtually unanimous, insanely positive critical reception.
Using the now-rarely seen genre of the musical film, La La Land tells the story of two aspiring artists - jazz musician Sebastian and actress Mia - who are trying to make it in Los Angeles. After a rocky first couple of interactions, the two fall in love. However, trouble emerges when Sebastian compromises his own strict artistic integrity and takes a lucrative job as a pianist for a pop jazz band, putting pressure on his relationship with Mia.
Full disclosure: I don't like musicals. I've seen many of the classics and even a handful of modern ones considered the best in the genre, but I quite simply am not a fan of the approach. For the most part, I've always found musicals a bit too saccharine and superficial, in terms of the plots and characters. While I can appreciate the talent and effort that goes into making a good musical, I've always preferred a more straightforward style of narrative. With all of that in mind, I'll say that La La Land does a nice job of what it sets out to do, and it adds a bit more modern sophistication and humor to the proceedings in terms of acting and the non-musical dialogue.
But it is still a musical. Though director Damien Chazelle does a commendable job weaving the song and dance numbers into the story more smoothly than many musicals, they are still a distraction. Fortunately, there are some dazzling visuals sprinkled into the carefully-constructed sets, scenes, and costume layouts, making for a film that is as easy on the eyes as they come. The issue is, though, that I found almost none of the songs partcicularly memorable or catchy, in terms of either the lyrics or the tunes. And while Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are excellent actors with great comic chops (just see them together in Crazy, Stupid Love), they aren't top-rate singers or dancers. They're fine. In Stone's case, even good. But they aren't going to rank among the best song-and-dance duos in movie history any time soon. And this is what I need from such movies. One of the few musicals I like is the classic Swing Time, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, because those two were world-class dancers who could hypnotize us with their supremely elegant moves on the dance floor. Gosling and Stone simply aren't anywhere near that class, so their "musical" skills are not a particular reason to see the movie.
I did enjoy the comedy in the film, thanks to Gosling and Stone's abilities to deliver humor even when the script may not have been particularly sharp. And the ending of the movie is truly creative and moving. Ultimately, though, this was not a musical that won over a person like me - one who can count on one hand the number of musicals that they enjoy.
This leads me to wonder about why the film has received a record-tying number of Oscar nominations. My personal theory is that movie critics and industry insiders, even more than movie aficionados, have a massive bias towards the legacy of movies (almost as much as movies about movies). The musical is a nearly extinct form of film, and I suspect that the Academy and other film award organization were just thrilled to see any form of well-done musical (only Les Miserable from 2013 had been nominated in the last 14 years. Before that, it was Chicago in 2002). Whatever the case, I think that the other three Best Picture nominees which I've seen - Arrival, Hell or High Water, and Manchester by the Sea - are all superior to La La Land.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
An absolutely astounding movie that finds the true drama in a very real, very human kind of tragedy and an attempt at some form of healing and redemption.
The story is that of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor who tends to several apartment buildings in the Boston area. He lives a solitary life in a tiny apartment, and he keeps his distance from other people. Although quiet, there is clearly an inner rage burning inside Lee, as evidenced by a violence that emerges when he drinks too much. This loner is thrown out of his routine, however, when he learns that his brother has passed away back in his coastal hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea. When he returns, many of the things which Lee tried to escape a number of years previous start to creep their way back into his life, forcing him to reckon with them. One of the primary elements of this is his nephew, Patrick, a 16-year-old who has had little to no interaction with his uncle since some unspoken tragedy parted them. Patrick is a rather typical modern Boston Irish-Catholic teen - witty, charming, sarcastic, and alternately self-absorbed and caring.
My wife and I were blown away with just how powerful, effective, and often even enjoyable this movie was. At its heart there is a brutal tragedy that would normally torpedo any enjoyment one could take from such a story. Here, however, it is not allowed to suck all of the life and humor out of the tale. With dry, gallows humor and their feet firmly planted in reality, the characters force Lee and us viewers to accept that life moves on. In some ways, this is a good thing, but in others it is painful. For those looking for nice, tidy, and pleasant endings to their dramas, this will likely not be satisfying. It is, however, an extremely thoughtful and touchingly humanistic tale.
The setting and characters create an impressive sense of place. Though some viewers may be a bit burned out by the relatively steady stream of prominent "Boston area" movies that have hit the screens in the last twenty or so years, starting with Good Will Hunting in 1997 and most recently seen in last year's Spotlight, Manchester by the Sea is not using its setting simply for panache. There is a very particular culture at work here - that of the traditional, Northeastern Irish Catholics - that plays heavily into Lee's dealings with his own pain and the members of his family. Perhaps it is easy for me to relate and connect, being the son of Irish Catholic parents, one of whom was born and raised in Queens, New York, but I feel that the movie has a more universal appeal in that it touches on ways that men traditionally retreat to stoicism as a way to deal with emotional pain.
In terms of narrative, the movie is masterful. Using occasional flashbacks, we get to see Lee as he was several years before the current story, and the difference is drastic. This initially sets up the question of what caused such an obvious shift in demeanor, and it leads us right into Lee's current conflict with himself, his hometown, and the family members and former friends who live there. Non-linear narratives can often become mere novelty tricks, but this movie uses it to enhance its' tale immensely.
As of my writing this, I've only seen four out of the nine Oscar Best Picture nominees. But Manchester by the Sea is my current leader in the clubhouse for the best. Whether it wins or not is another story, but this movie is outstanding drama, all around.