Thursday, May 25, 2017

Creatures of the Fright: ALIEN: COVENANT



The dictates of blockbuster franchising have taken Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece of a claustrophobic spaceship creature feature, and expanded its grim point of view. Each iteration sends a crew of humans into space never to return, devoured inevitably by the memorable, acid-dripping, body horror-manifesting, otherworldly beasties. Through sheer repetition and accumulation of incident, this is now a rigorously cold and isolating perspective for a popular film series. It says humans are capable of great things – space travel and sci-fi tech and all that stuff – but that we will invariably mess it up. We’re doomed, essentially. Our species will bump up against our cognitive and sociological limitations to die alone in the cold emptiness of outer space. Fitting that the franchise which began with the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” has only made the sentiment darker, sadder, and more disturbing.

After largely enjoyable sequels helmed by a rotating director’s chair of popcorn auteurs (James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Paul W.S. Anderson), Scott took control once more with the 2012 prequel Prometheus. That brilliantly austere film asked big philosophical questions about creation and existence in cold frames and cool designs while still managing a pulpy monster movie sending an all-star cast to their memorable dooms. A direct sequel to the prequel, Alien: Covenant doesn’t manage the balance quite as well, but Scott is a consummate craftsman, able to navigate complex sequences and ambitious design for an intelligently crafted picture. It may just be another Hollywood spectacle riffing on images from once original concepts long since passed into brand deposits. But would that all such productions be made with such considered design and calculated awe. Here is a movie made by filmmakers at the height of their powers, executed with tension and dread, heightened by a sense of the eerie and sublime. At one point, it packs a mind-bending epic into a short, evocative flashback – images of spinning spaceships raining Black Death on an old future world – wrapped in 19th century poetry intoned by an inscrutably villainous android. Talk about handsome pulp.

The film follows a predictable pattern, first introducing a large crew on a colonization mission to a distant planet. Something goes wrong mid-flight and they awake to hear a distress call slightly off their course. They check it out, and are immediately imperiled by mysterious creatures who latch on to their anatomies and don’t let go – not just the series’ famous facehuggers, but spores that bore into nostrils and ear drums, and embryonic aliens birthed by splitting men in two with geysers of gore. The screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper does not ask much of its famous faces, but the welcome likes of Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Jussie Smollett, Carmen Ejogo, and Amy Seimetz go a long way to selling the weary professionalism and increasingly frazzled nature of deep space dilemmas slowly morphing into all-out survivalist horror. Best is Michael Fassbender as the crew’s android Walter, a kindly protective useful thing, and David, the older model abandoned on a dead world with a human survivor (Noomi Rapace) after the events of the previous film. He’s now becoming something of a mad scientist with an ego to match. The dual role plays between a new, perfectly manicured robot built to serve and an old robot who has unsettlingly developed eccentricities and long shaggy hair. Any movie that can stop dead in its tracks for twin androids to practice playing the recorder and maintain the film’s core creepiness is alright in my book.

Scott designs the movie with a tension between the wild sci-fi scope of his gods’ and monsters, intelligent design, dark, space epic and the tiny, drooling, chamber piece horror as the characters are confronted with the terror of the unknown. We see in the robots and spaceships – and the long, loving, detailed effects shots of the technology in action – hints of Kubrick’s 2001 and Scott’s own Blade Runner, but he’s mostly riffing on his own franchise at this point, feeding plots and images back into the ouroboric endeavor of big-screen mythmaking. We’ve been here before, but never exactly like this. It has humans capable of traveling into the unknown only to be brought down by their own hubris, caught between forces beyond their control – nature – and those which they begat – technology. The universe doesn’t care. Either way, they’ll die. It’s the exact opposite of his last feature, The Martian, which said all outer space problems can be solved through science, teamwork, and determination. Here he’s ensured his flagship franchise is an entertaining and deeply pessimistic one, encompassing killer robots, drooling monsters, ancient aliens, and intergalactic genocide. The deliberate one-by-one slasher pace set against the backdrop of vast mysterious vistas and beguiling futurist detail this time finds its cast a mere facet of the production design, a routine but ponderous formula that works well enough again.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Bubble Girl: EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING



Here’s one of those passable, cloying YA adaptations that’s totally artificial and utterly sentimental, torn between metaphoric exploration of romantic teen alienation and stupidly contrived conceits. Everything, Everything (so nice they named it twice) is about an 18-year-old girl (Amandla Stenberg) who has lived locked inside behind air filters and Plexiglas as long as she can remember. It’s for her health and safety, since her deadly immune deficiency was discovered by her protective physician mother (Anika Noni Rose). The girl has cultivated a rich and playful interior life through reading books, watching movies (always nice to see even a glance of Moonstruck), and checking in on support group chat rooms. But one day, a cute boy her age (Nick Robinson) moves in next door and, in a twist usually only found in stories like this, his bedroom window that looks right into hers. They make eyes at each other for a bit, then he writes his phone number on the glass. She texts. He texts back. It’s love at first emoticon, or maybe at first read receipt. The more she gets to know him, the more she wants to go outside, an urge we’re too swoon over despite the very real threat to her life if she encounters those germs floating in the world at large. Sure, the course of true love never did run smooth, but why risk everything (everything)?

Adapting Nicola Yoon’s book, the screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe (The Age of Adaline) contorts itself to justify the romantic urges, finding tragic backstory and late-breaking twists to convince the audience that it’s all for the better. So it has a premise that’s barely convincing on a literal level and yet – and yet! – it’s often sweet and emotionally appealing because of the unassuming openness of its lead and the soft-spoken, underplayed loveliness of its metaphor. What is first teen love but the blushing sense of getting away with something? The movie doesn’t exactly work, but, hey, I’m not made of stone, either. Stenberg brings shy expressiveness to her confined character, able to communicate her deep yearning for human contact through bashful glances while also signaling the fierce intelligence behind her hesitant smiles and flustered flirting. She’s totally believable as a girl who has more time alone with her thoughts and who has read more than most her age, and yet has experienced precious little of what we’d call the real world. She’s able to give the movie the earnest innocent desires and curiosity that almost provide enough emotional oomph to make the construct work.

Although director Stella Meghie shoots the movie with a pleasant commercial gloss – all bright sets, soft lighting, gauzy close-ups, slick pop-music montages, and coy, implied PG-13 heat – it also gives the sense it’s as closed off as its main character. The darker implications of its premise remain unexplored, tossed overboard for the sake of maintaining a sense of teenage fantasy and persecution. But the way it allows space for Stenberg’s performance to ping off Rose’s strong, stern, maternal love gives the movie the small metaphoric charge it needs to be effective. It becomes, in its strongest moments, a movie about the lengths a parent can go to maintain a child’s safety, security, and purity. Starting with good intentions, this can result in a young person for whom flirtation, let alone dating, seems like a far riskier and fraught prospect than it should. This is a simple movie about teenage love that deploys its dramatic conceit to literalize the sheltered girl’s boxed in feelings, then watches as they’re coaxed out through a sense of determination and outside influences. She and her crush are cute together. He’s sweet. She’s nice. Meghie gives their texting an imaginary mind palace of a meeting spot – fantasies of actual dialogue in the likes of a retro diner and in outer space taking the place of text bubbles as they grow closer – and when they finally appear in the same room, share the same space, well, I said I’m not made of stone. Even middling movies can occasionally get their hooks in you.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Once and Future KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD


Guy Ritchie takes a mythic English figure and turns his story into a scrappy ye olde Guy Ritchie-style story in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. With good gusto, he makes Arthur the nexus of a scampering rebellion, a gang who will become the knights of the round table plotting to take down an evil king and crown the rightful heir by heisting supplies, staging ambushes, beating back black-helmeted ne’re-do-wells, and sinking ships. They’re like the distant ancestors of the grubby, low-level criminals who populated Ritchie’s early works – Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, RocknRolla. This is fun at times, watching bantering, quick witted oafs and bruisers scheme their way into the highest positions in the land, and all for a noble reason. It’s especially charming because such a light touch and unassuming mode sits right next to the lugubrious solemnity of High Fantasy, dark magic swirling up stone walls, slithering snake women promising good luck in return for blood sacrifice, giant bats, enormous serpents, war elephants, magic rocks, and a sword in a stone. (That that last one is guarded by David Beckham cameoing as one of the villain’s henchman tells you something about the contrast set up here.) This isn’t nearly as fun a finished product as Ritchie’s spry, visually playful, charmingly plotted reimaginings – two red-blooded Sherlock Holmes adventures and a super cool Man from U.N.C.L.E. – but it has its charms.

The film errs on the side of gloopy CG confrontations and thin characterization, especially in its drearily predictable grand finale, but is otherwise fantasy filmmaking done up with pleasurable genre resonances. Its murky opening, quietly drifting across foggy green hills while mysterious magic erupts in the distance reminds me of nothing less than John Boorman’s brilliantly bonkers sci-fi Zardoz crossed with his Arthurian take, Excalibur. Fire blasts forth and a ginormous battle involves a king jumping his horse from a parapet onto an elephantine platform. This noble hero king (Eric Bana) is victorious, but abruptly betrayed by a nefarious usurper (Jude Law) who covets the crown (and works on self-taught Dark Arts, hoping to one day graduate to master Firestarter). A tiny orphaned prince is floated down the river – Moses style, in this never-ending parade of legendary allusions – and raised in a blisteringly rapid-fire montage that takes him from naïve boy taken in by kind criminals to a tough, streetwise brawler. Grown (into Charlie Hunnam), he’s as quick with his quips as he is with his fists, all swaggering confidence even when he’s doubting himself, like when that sword comes out of the stone and the kingdom’s revolutionaries (led by Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) scoop him up into their plots against the evil reigning o’er the land.

Generally easy going and light on its feet, despite plodding inevitably to a dull, clangorous climactic confrontation, Ritchie goes all in on his stylish energy. His films, good, bad, and in between (like this one), manage to be at once rough-and-tumble and smooth operators. He fills this telling with snap zooms, propulsive smash cuts, speed ramping, and zippy, fluid, computer-assisted dipping, spinning, and flying establishing shots. He also draws on his Rubik’s-cube-jumbled approach to what in other hands would be conventional setups and payoffs. Instead of long sequences of exposition leading up to bursts of action, he will often intercut the two, cross-cutting speeches and arguments and planning with execution. We see Arthur and his band of would-be heroes devise a trip into a monster-filled wasteland where he must learn to control his magic sword by placing it on a magic rock, their words carrying over as the soundtrack to a lightning fast montage of creature feature derring-do. This gives the picture a jumpy jangle, at once ponderously mythic and casually loping. No one has time to catch their breath between spasms of style, but the movie somehow accrues a sense of heavy sag.

It never quite finds a way to reconcile these competing tendencies, but as a Ritchie romp – co-written, photographed, scored, and edited by some of his familiar collaborators – it never quite loses its loose-limbed charms either. They’re there jolting and jumping underneath even the stateliest fantasy tropes, production design from Game of Thrones vets turned slightly askew, like when the Lady in the Lake appears to pull Arthur through an impossibly deep mud puddle in a dime-store adventure version of a memorably gross Trainspotting swim. So, it’s not totally satisfying. But it’s also not every day you see a movie that straight-faced sends its hero into battle against Rodents of Unusual Size, or includes a moment when a growling Jude Law cuts off a man’s ear and whispers one last threat into it. Those are the sorts of charming eccentricities of which these dusty big-budget boondoggles could use more.

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