Saturday, May 27, 2017

Alien: Covenant, The Wall, Your Name, A Quiet Passion Reviews

Alien: Covenant
Dir. Ridley Scott

The thing that irks me the most about Disney's recent Star Wars films are their over-reliance on familiar imagery and plot lines from the original trilogy. With Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott falls into the same trap of making a complete concession to fans with his own franchise. Prometheus, 2012's Alien prequel co-scripted by Lost scribe Damon Lindelof, was in my opinion a fantastic, intense, original take on the "Alien" mythology, but it came under fire from Slurpee-scarfing mouth-breathers online for not having the same exact creatures as the original 1979 movie and attempting to make something new and original. Well, I hope they're happy now, because in Alien: Covenant Scott pretty much gives those whiny basement-dwellers exactly what they asked for: an Alien retread with the same old aliens as before that bends over backwards to retcon most of the interesting, ambitious philosophical concepts introduced in Prometheus. To many, Alien: Covenant will be an "improvement" over its predecessor due to its stripped-down, back-to-basics quality, but to me this was just a disappointingly empty rehash of old ideas.

The story, continuing 10 years after the events of Prometheus, follows the crew members of the colony ship Covenant, holding about two thousand colonists and a thousand unborn embryos bound for a remote, habitable planet, Origae-6. While the rest of the crew are in stasis pods, an android named Walter (Michael Fassbender), a newer model of "David" from the last film, monitors the ship. However, when a random space-storm damages the Covenant, a bunch of the colonists are killed along with their captain (a strange, extremely brief cameo from James Franco), and the remaining crew (including Billy Crudup, Katherine Waterston, and a straw hat-wearing Danny McBride) decide to divert their course and instead follow a mysterious radio signal emanating from a nearby, seemingly human-friendly planet, cutting down on their travel time. Predictably, these fools decide to land and investigate immediately (because why bother sending a robot or camera first?), and you can pretty much guess what happens from there.

Though I have a bunch of nits to pick about this movie, at least it looks amazing. The fifth collaboration between Ridley Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Covenant is both gorgeous and downright terrifying visually. The exteriors were supposedly shot around New Zealand and Australia, but as with The Martian and Prometheus, Ridley Scott is a genius at making real locations truly look like alien worlds. The lighting and the claustrophobic atmosphere inside the spaceships make you feel trapped alongside the characters as well, and I appreciated that they didn't skimp out on the gore (though I wish more of it was practical and not CGI). On a basic, "haunted house" level, Alien: Covenant does a decent job at delivering plenty of heebies and quite a few jeebies.

However, where this movie fails the hardest is in the characters - all of whom save for Michael Fassbender are so bland that calling their characters "one-dimensional" is an insult to the first dimension. In Prometheus, I loved how our main heroine Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) was obsessed with finding out the answers to the origin of life because she herself was barren and could not conceive children. Although we didn't get a whole heck of a lot of the crew's backgrounds, there was clearly a lot of forethought put into their characters. On the other hand, the lead heroine in Alien: Covenant has literally no personality. She mourns for her husband in one scene, but that grief never manifests in any meaningful way ever again. The Billy Crudup character early on expresses the fact that he is one of the few crew members who admits to being a person of faith - again, this is never referenced again in the film. It's all padding before the monsters.

What makes Alien: Covenant most disappointing is how it sets up a bunch of interesting ideas just like Prometheus, and does nothing with them, eventually devolving into b-movie slasher flick territory. This movie wants to posit these deep themes, steeped in religion and creation and gods and monsters, but unlike Prometheus it's all pointless lip service just as an excuse to get to that cool shot of a facehugger or that mindless action setpiece with a Xenomorph. Sure these "money shot" moments are captured well and look amazing, but there's little reason to care about any of it by the time your bag of popcorn is just crumbs.

Rating: B-

The Wall
Dir. Doug Liman

I'm a sucker for "single location" thrillers. Like Saw, Buried, and Paranormal Activity, I think it takes a talented filmmaker to create a lot of tension with as few tools as possible. The Wall, from Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) - not to be confused with the Pink Floyd movie or the rhetoric of Donald Trump - is another one of these enclosed thrillers. 

It follows two US soldiers, Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Shane Matthews (John Cena), in postwar Iraq. Thinking a former battle area is clear and checking it out, Shane is suddenly shot and badly injured by a mysterious gunman, while Allen is shot in the leg and seeks shelter behind a very rickety stone wall. The entire film is essentially these two guys trying to - in the words of Survivor - outwit, outlast, and outplay this unseen sniper. It's a pretty intense film, mostly focusing on Allen behind the wall, that in many ways does for Aaron Taylor-Johnson what The Revenant did for Leonardo DiCaprio.

I really enjoyed the film overall, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is fantastic (if you haven't please check out Nocturnal Animals!). However, even at a paltry 81 minutes, it does feel like 15-20 minutes could have been shaved off this movie with nothing lost. Although I would've preferred it to be an hour-long short, perhaps released on Netflix, I'm sure the economics on short films isn't exactly booming. That being said, if you want to enjoy a solid action-thriller that really hits home the pointlessness of war (this movie isn't subtle about the fact that the war was supposedly "over"), I'd definitely recommend you check out The Wall.

Rating: B

Your Name
Dir. Makoto Shinkai
Watch Trailer

While it only received a limited release in America, Your Name is one of the biggest financial successes in animation of all time. Ranked as the #1 highest grossing anime film ever at a whopping total gross of $353 million, in Japan the only films that have earned more money are Frozen, Titanic, and Spirited Away. The film is essentially a sci-fi spin on Freaky Friday - due to a magical comet, a teenage boy living in Tokyo and a teenage girl living in rural Japan magically swap bodies on random days. After figuring out what's going on and creating a system for themselves, the two eventually form a strong "long-distance" relationship, and go on a quest to try and find each other. However, there are multiple twists and turns in Your Name, which makes the union of this potential couple even more difficult than either could imagine.

With the type of "body swap" story that is typically reserved for lame comedies (The Hot Chick, The Change-Up), Your Name refreshingly avoids those cliches to tell a story steeped in Japanese culture, alluding to the culture clash between modern society and ancient traditions, the aftermath of tragedies, and unrequited young love. I appreciated that it ambitiously balances a ton of interesting sci-fi concepts, and does so with beautiful animation. However, that being said, there are a striking number of plot holes and convenient coincidences in this movie, and I found that the central "relationship" between the boy and the girl was hard to buy into (I mean, they've never even technically met before). Not to mention the cringe-worthy recurrent use of J-Pop in the soundtrack.

Beautifully animated and ideologically complex, Your Name is a must-see for fans of anime and/or science fiction, though I wasn't as blown away by it as the masses supposedly were.

Rating: B

A Quiet Passion
Dir. Terence Davies
Watch Trailer

It doesn't exactly seem appropriate to describe Emily Dickinson's life as "cinematic." Notoriously a shut-in for most of her life - to the point of talking to visitors on the other side of a closed door - it seems like a mighty hill to climb for any filmmaker trying to make an engaging film about one of America's most beloved and posthumously-famous poets. While the 92% on Rotten Tomatoes suggests I'm in the wrong here (which I'm sure I am), I don't think A Quiet Passion found that interesting way to depict Dickinson's life. It's about as dull as sitting through a boring lecture on literature.

A Quiet Passion is about as navel-gazing as you would think a movie about a woman who rarely leaves her house could be. Cynthia Nixon plays Dickinson as well as could be expected, and the few glimmers of the movie I actually enjoyed featured Nixon's sassy 19th-century feminist comebacks to all the ignorant old folks and church-goers she chats with at various walks and tea times. However, despite the thrill of listening to Dickinson's old-timey acid tongue, both Nixon and seemingly everyone else in the film speaks in a very flamboyant old-American accent that surprisingly had the same unnatural cadence of "high school play" acting.

At two long hours with little to hold onto but the static life of a recluse, I think you're better off just reading Dickinson's poetry and perusing her bio online than watching this slog of a film.

Rating: C

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