Sunday, May 28, 2017

Alien Covenant review

Ridley Scott returned to the “Alien” franchise with his 2012 prequel “Prometheus,”  showing  that the veteran Hollywood director still had a love for monumental science fiction storytelling and an eye for evocative imagery. Yet the viewers who were waiting decades to know more about the origins of 1979’s “Alien” were left with a handsome production undercut by a messy screenplay by writer Damon Lindelof that only teased an explanation, while leaving more questions to be answered.  Hopes that this year’s “Alien Covenant” would finally tie the narrative threads together are hopes to be had in vain, as this latest installment ventures down another lateral tangent that further broadens the mythology.

Much like the first third of the original “Alien,” “Covenant” sends another crew of explorers to an uncharted planet after receiving a fuzzed-out message by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the lost survivor of the Prometheus ship. This traveling colony, having recently suffered from an electrical storm that killed many of their inhabitants in hyper-sleep, decides to change course to see if this mysterious planet can support human life. Aboard the vessel is their self-doubting, proudly religious Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), who’s insisting they take the risk to save time, while second-in-command officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston) has just lost her husband in the devastating accident and wants the Covenant to stay on course.  Once a pod of explorers is sent down to investigate the earth-like sphere, the crew discovers a biological terror they weren’t prepared to deal with.

Rounding out the cast is Danny McBride as red-neck pilot Tennessee, Amy Seimets as his wife Faris, Damian Birchir as Lope, and Michael Fassbender as the group’s resident android Walter.  They’re many other smaller performances in the picture and characters to be named, including an oddly short James Franco cameo, but John Logan and Dante Harper’s screenplay relegates most of these roles to serving the story as faceless creature-feature fodder and these extra crew members barely peak out of the movie’s larger obsession with awkwardly-paced, talky scenes of needless exposition.

While the initial introduction to this crew in mourning is an interesting place to begin a darker more sorrowful tone, the movie ultimately lacks the humanity and soul it needs to inform this choice. Instead, the film abandons this set-up and moves on to other concerns. The final moments of “Alien Covenant” contains a traditional attack sequence that feels tired and familiar by the time we get there and superfluous after an hour and forty minutes of exhausting scenes of cave-dwelling, interspersed with mindless attempts at shock

Longtime fans that are curious to see how Scott expands the Alien mythos will likely be divided on the Covenant’s retroactive continuity, as it seems to disregard a lot of speciation rules from the previous installments that followed writer Dan O’Bannon’s original “Alien.” In its place, we are introduced to various forms of alien spores, white monkey-looking creatures that burst out of people’s backs and early forms of the classic eggs and face-huggers. People new to the franchise will and should be totally lost in this minutia and those trying to follow along may need to create a complicated flow-chart to connect all the disparate creatures into one lineage. Whereas the original alien-lifecycle was once elegant and believable, O’Bannon’s simple mythology has now been muddied by two prequels that let the overarching thematic concerns and a handful of bad ideas overtake the storytelling.  This installment in particular is somehow both overreaching and lazy in its execution.

Like “Prometheus,” Michael Fassbender’s duel performance as the androids Walter and David steal the show; though within these scenes, the film’s divergence into highfalutin discussions about life, grief, religion, creation, obsession and flute playing loosens the necessary narrative tension for the movie to work as an effective thriller. Most of the monster attack scenes are only sprinkled in to remind us that this pre-sequel is still related to the known franchise, but the overall structure of the picture is compromised by wasted performances by otherwise good actors, under-rendered CGI, moments of ponderous meditation on themes that are never fully realized and rushed sequences of unearned gore.  

Grade: D+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/May-2017\

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Alien Covenant"

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol: 2 review

How does Marvel Studios and writer/director James Gunn follow up their idiosyncratic space-opera send up, “Guardians of the Galaxy?” Despite its undeniable success, the pressure to live up the ever-growing reputation of their 2014 blockbuster had be daunting, considering the specific tone and aesthetic approach these creators allowed for the project.  I am happy to say that while “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol: 2” doesn’t capture the same lightning in a bottle, I-can’t-believe-they’re-getting-away-with-this quality of its predecessor, Gunn still brings his subversive sensibilities to the table with enthusiasm.

After botching a trade deal with a race of golden, elitist aliens called The Sovereign, the Guardians hightail it to the other side of the galaxy to find safety. Peter Quill/Starlord (Chris Pratt), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) find refuge on a heavenly planet manned by a glowing, bearded celestial named Ego (Kurt Russell) who’s claiming to be Peter’s father.  Separated from the group, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the baby tree elemental Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are crash landed on a forest planet with Gamora’s violent sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), hiding from Peter’s old clan of space pirates led by the vengeful Yandu (Michael Rooker).  Making things all the more complicated, the pirates are staging a mutiny, believing that Yandu himself has been too soft on Peter’s betrayal.

Gunn’s love for the character’s is evident throughout the plot, which, unlike a lot of Marvel’s on-screen adaptations, is rooted in pathos. Every scene and set-piece advances a character’s role in the story and has a overall goal towards supporting the theme of outsiders looking to form new families. While there are plenty of expensive special effects to gawk at and many visual gags and quips in the dialog to laugh at, the whole thing is held together by Gunn’s strength in character-driven, emotional storytelling. That said, the special effects are at times overwhelmingly glossy, sometimes losing a true sense of tactility, and the humor occasionally slips into try-hard territory.

While the previous film found it’s humor in the on-screen interactions and the outlandish circumstances of the plot, along with moments of sarcastic dialogue, this script feels a more punched-up with a joke-per-page quota that has to be met. This expectation for comedy leaves some quips and gags falling flat while other jokes and setups feel more naturally integrated. Overall, the storytelling and the conviction of the actors in their roles supports even the film’s weaker attempts at humor.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol:2” can’t surprise us like it did the first time around and one can find faults in its minutia but the takeaway is still the same—this is a fun group of weirdos to follow and even if you don’t know where things are going in the plot, you’re always invested in their colorful antics. Gunn’s themes about fatherhood and legacy ring true, even as they are heavily dressed in neon, arcade-game production design and delivered through jokey dialogue. Marvel fans and movie fans alike should treasure this weird little niche that Gunn and his cohorts have carved out for themselves.

Grade: B+

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/May-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol:2"

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Colossal review

The Anne Hathaway starring hybrid film “Colossal” solves the problems of both blockbuster spectacles and formulaic romantic comedies. Rom-coms often suffer from a lack of tension in the drama, leading to forced conflict that undermines the characters, and blockbusters often overlook their characters in favor of eye-popping visuals and ratcheting the stakes in the plot. Like the designer-dog puggle breed, that stops a pug’s snorting and stops a beagle’s howling, Nacho Vigalondo’s first English-language feature blends the two Hollywood traditions in a mutually beneficial way.

Anne Hathaway returns to her “Rachel Getting Married” acting toolbox, playing another mess who’s looking for redemption and respect at the same time. Her character Gloria returns to her small town after getting kicked out of her boyfriend’s (Dan Stevens) swanky New York apartment.  While sulking in the streets of her hometown, she runs into an old high school friend named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who’s been recently divorced and trying to keep his father’s bar alive.  Figuring that she might need a leg up, he offers Gloria a part-time job, unaware of her history with alcoholism.

Meanwhile, in Seoul South Korea a giant monster appears roughly the same time every night, seemingly unaware of its surroundings and stumbling into buildings before mysteriously disappearing into thin air. After watching the TV footage of this phenomena, Gloria and Oscar realize that the monster only appears across the globe whenever she visits the a grade-school park after a long night of drinking.  When Gloria has some conflicts at work and her ex decides to come back to visit her, this heightened sense of personal responsibility is challenged further.

Vigalondo’s film works on a number of allegorical levels.  Obviously there’s the commentary about alcoholism and its relationship to our past traumas and the many damages it can cause by accident. Hathaway’s interaction with fragile masculinity as an active female character is also fascinating to observe. Again, by flipping the romantic comedy love-triangle trope on its head, this story explores the inherent misogyny bred into that stock fantasy. 

The movie also discusses how the media treats disasters and wars abroad as a form of endless news cycle-entertainment. Having been released between two fresh bombings performed overseas by our government, and having watched certain news commentators wax poetic about the aesthetic beauty of our missile launches, the film's depictions of American's glued to the televised destruction seems all the more prescient.

Despite some undercooked narrative vagueness surrounding a couple short flashbacks and some truncated special effect sequences that gives away movie’s limited budget, “Colossal” executes it’s quirky goals fantastically. Sudeikis and Hathaway are great at shifting back and forth from comedic amiability to dramatically tense, and their arc is always reinforced by the movie’s larger ambitions as a commentary on genre cinema. Given that audiences are inundated by many movies per year about giant robots vs. giant monsters (“Power Rangers,” “Transformers,” “Pacific Rim”), it’s nice to finally see one with a core concern for relatable human experiences.

Grade: B+

Originally published in the Idaho State Journal/Apr-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Colossal"

Monday, March 6, 2017

Get Out review

Keagan Michael Key and Jordan Peele rose to prominence by using their comedic platform to discuss issues of race, sociology and identity, but Peele’s treatment of these topics as the basis of a mostly-serious horror film has added an urgency and anger that wasn’t always present in their Comedy Central show. With the election coming fresh off the outrage surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and having recently seen many young black men killed by the authorities, churches burned down and minority voting rights being compromised, this retrograde of civil rights has had an emotional and psychological impact on many non-white communities. 

“Get Out” takes the basic structure of the 1967 Sidney Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and subverts it with the sci-fi-horror paranoia of classics such as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” 

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, the young African American boyfriend of Rose Armitage, played “Girls” star Allison Williams. They’ve been dating for five months and Chris has decided travel with his gal to upstate New York to meet her white, affluent, town-and-country family for the first time. While nervous about the encounter, everything seems to be relatively normal. Rose’s neurosurgeon dad (Bradley Whitford) clumsily tries to code-switch, speaking in what he thinks of as ‘street’ lingo, and is perhaps too quick to assure Chris that if he could have voted for Obama for a third term, he would have.  And while Rose’s hypnotherapist mother (Catherine Keener) is a little too insistent on helping Chris shed his smoking habits with a free session, basically, the two parents seem warm and accommodating. On the other hand, Rose’s MMA-obsessed brother (Caleb Landry Jones) displays an intensity that’s a little less predictable.

Things only begin to get especially strange when Chris approaches the family’s African American hired help, Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel). They’re awake and active at weird hours of the night, they walk around dazed and unresponsive and they’re hostile or defensive whenever Chris tries to engage them in conversation. As the story unfolds and plot points are later revealed, Peele’s script continues to take bigger, wilder risks and digs deep into the overt social commentary that permeates the film’s subtext.

It might have been very tempting to portray the devious whites here as post-colonial, traditional conservatives from the south, but the movie instead chooses to tap into a much less obvious stereotype; upper-middle-class, educated neo-liberals. Peele examines the often-parasitic relationship between the races, and how some classes of whites will co-opt the struggle of the black experience for their own political or monetary gain, without ever giving back to the communities they exploit to successfully take power.

The movie brilliantly and thoroughly eases the audience into Chris’s perspective so that we are looking at every white character with as much suspicion as he is. When the privileged guests off the parent’s snooty garden party ask stupid questions like “what’s the African American experience been like for you,” even a white audience can feel the sting of condescension in that moment. Peele’s immersive subjective direction along with Kaluuya’s nuanced performance helps to sell what, stripped away from its political context, could come off as fairly goofy genre material.

“Get Out” is a step further away from the broad sketch comedy of “Key and Peele,” but it also provides many well-earned laughs of its own. LilRey Howery is cleverly placed as Chris’s best friend character Rod, working within the story as the audience’s cipher. Through jokey conversations with the protagonist, this character points out the inherent pulpiness of the plot and reminds us that this director understands and has a sense of humor regarding the horror/thriller traditions he’s working in. Nevertheless, when the rubber needs to hit the road Peele fully commits to his thought provoking thesis and allows his racial allegories to approach their brutal conclusions.

Grade: A 

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/March-2017

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Lego Batman Movie review

Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s “The Lego Movie” conceptualized a meta world where many characters from different pop culture entities could collide and collaborate in support of the same comedic context. “The Lego Batman Movie,” takes this premise and explores the world of DC’s Gotham City. Here, the characters are aware that they are in a spoof, and the long-standing comic book lore is only used a basis for something broader, while also taking specific jabs at previous iterations of the caped crusader.

In this blocky, hyper-stylized universe, Batman (Voiced by Will Arnett) is an ego-maniacal loner who saves the city for attention at night, so he can enjoy the privacy to watch rom-coms and eat lobster in his mansion during the day.  His butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned that he’s walled away his emotions and isn’t reaching out to others for support. Even The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) doesn’t understand why Batman can’t appreciate their unique hero/villain relationship, so he takes it upon himself to prove that he’s Batman’s greatest foe, by releasing the world’s greatest supervillains on the city. This forces the stubborn Bat to save Lego Gotham from certain destruction by collaborating with his newly adopted ward Robin (Michael Cera) and the city’s new Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Roserio Dawson).

Obviously, much of this is supposed to be silly. The humor is tossed off as scenes quickly jump from reference to reference and joke to joke. The speedy pace of the film keeps things from drowning in its own absurdity but it also keeps things rather light and surface-oriented as well. Whereas the first Lego Movie had a statement to make about commercialization and the corporate nature of its own existence, there’s nothing quite as lofty or as subversive attempted in this straight-forward style parody.

Visually, the Lego novelty is used to good effect. The production design is stylish and appealing and many of the action scenes, while sometimes over-crowding the frame and edited too quickly to fully register, are creative and exceptional within the world of family-oriented entertainment.

Director and co-writer Chris McKay comes from the world of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, having directed many episodes of “Moral Orel” and “Robot Chicken.” Though “The Lego Batman Movie” is painted on a much larger canvass, it has the same disposable, premise-oriented frivolity of something like a “Robot Chicken” sketch, especially as characters from “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Jaws” are roped into the final act of the feature for meta-comedic effect.  

The approach here is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Given the sheer volume and variety of jokes, there’s enough laughs to justify the other bits that thud, but this scattershot, writers-room approach occasionally dilutes the overall vision of the project. Nevertheless, there was an attempt to create an actual story-arc with Arnett’s Batman and his adopted family.  Because that arc is never dropped amidst the joke-a-minute riffing and the visually cluttered Lego action sequences, the movie is allowed some amount of sloppiness so long as the story’s foundation can support it, and, for the most part, it does.

Grade: B- 

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "The Lego Batman Movie"

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Split review

M. Knight Shyamalan’s latest film “Split” combines his love of Hitchcockian thrills and with his predilection for high-concept myth-making and fuses these obsessions in a way that’s surprisingly energetic and captivating. I have to say surprising because since the heights of his career in early 2000 Shyamalan has only recently come off a long losing-streak s. After big budget genre-flops such as “Lady in the Water” and “The Last Airbender” he lost of lot of credibility as a coherent storyteller with both audiences and critics alike. Halving his costs under the pop-horror banner of Blumhouse Productions, it seems that he’s now able to make smaller, more efficient work without the pretenses of prestige. 

James McAvoy is given the spotlight playing a troubled man named Kevin who constantly switches between multiple personalities. After a complicated battle of dominance between the personalities inside of his mind, he kidnaps three teenage girls in the hopes to appease a brooding darkness growing from within. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey Cook, the most introverted and ostracized of these women, and through this kidnapping experience she's forced to relive her past abuse. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula portray the other two girls who can’t understand why Casey has no will to fight. As they try to come up with clever ways to escape McAvoy’s underground lair, Casey tries to get to know and manipulate Kevin’s separate personalities.

We get to know McAvoy as a brutish clean-freak and fetishist named Dennis, a passive-aggressive English woman named Patricia, a nine-year-old attention-seeker named Hedwig, a nervous fashionista named Barry and a demonic force of nature known only as The Beast. While Dennis and Patricia--the personalities responsible for the kidnapping--have the most control over their host, the others have sought the help of a psychiatrist named Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who's beginning to notice that her patient has something to hide.

Like any Shyamalan film, there’s a lot of plot here and his characters are subservient to the whims of the director’s set-ups and reveals. His depiction of mental illness has less to do with diagnose-able science and more with pulp mythology that’s rooted in past psychodramas and paranormal science-fiction.  If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and give in to the script’s wacky concepts, as a thriller, the movie works well enough. The ticking-clock set up at the beginning of the film allows for constant tension that keeps everything on a track, even as scenes digresses into long-winded explanations of the movie rules through clunky, expository dialogue.

McAvoy’s having a lot of fun with these multiple roles and approaches the film’s goofy plot with just the right amount on whit and sarcasm to aid in its occasional black comedy. Anya Taylor-Joy is more informed by her character’s flashbacks than by her performance, but her emotional stillness helps to ground the movie’s themes and dramatic stakes.

“Split” is a mixed bag; it’s overwritten, it’s a bit hokey and Shyamalan has some problematic and concerning ideas about abuse-survival as a means of martyrdom, but the film is never boring and it managed to keep me engaged with the story as it moved along.  Thrill rides don’t necessarily have to be realistic, and though I wish this ride hadn’t stopped every ten minute to explain something that didn’t need explaining, despite it's failings, I appreciated the end-result.

Grade: B-

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2017

Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Split."

Sunday, February 5, 2017

XOXO review

Netflix has created a seismic shift the world of film and television distribution. Not only are they producing several movies and series on their own, they are now releasing several projects bought from the festival circuit. Their platform has become so popular that its becoming less and less necessary to house older material, which would be a shame, considering they helped destroy video-store culture all around the country. 

Whatever. Netflix recently released a garbage dump of a movie about CW-looking ravers called “XOXO” and it’s barely a movie and it’s really stupid and I just can’t even.

This is supposed to be a portmanteau-structured narrative, which features Graham Phillips as Ethan, a laptop DJ who’s blowing up on youtube and whose best friend Tariq (Brett DelBuono) has booked him a slot on a desert EDM festival called XOXO. Attending the fest is Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland as an innocent suburban girl hoping to finally meet her online boyfriend for the first time, Hayley Kiyoko and Colin Woodell as a couple looking to cut loose before Kiyoko’s character Shannie moves away, and comedian Chris D’Elia plays aged hipster named Neil who can barely stand being in this movie as much I can barely stand watching it.

The plot is structured so that Ethan’s big debut at XOXO ties together these shifting story threads and all the characters are supposed to overcome their petty life complications through the power of thumping dance music and recreational drug use. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t a culture that I’m a part of or know much about, but the movie never gives me a reason to be interested in the dance music scene or to invest in any of these competing character dilemmas. Furthermore, the actors are given terrible dialogue and they can’t seem to compensate that with any personality in their performances.

I would say this movie has tone issues, but I’m not sure if there was a pointed attempt at capturing a specific mood or emotion. The neon, black-light rave stuff is supposed to have a dark and mysterious effect on the drama, but the plot moves around so much and direction by Christopher Louie is so flat and cheap looking that it never registers as dream-like or psychedelic. Also, is this a comedy? There’s some clumsy attempts drug humor and misunderstanding humor but neither are groomed in a way that informs the rest of what’s going on. As the movie unfolds, you get the feeling that each scene and each set up was shot and directed with no consideration of how it would fit with the completed product.

For a film that’s all about the uniting power of music and community (I guess that’s what it’s about. *shrugs*) there’s nothing remotely effecting or memorable about the movie’s music either. Our hero Ethan’s hit song is barely hummable and it doesn’t stand out among any of the other bland EDM selections pulsing in the background.

“XOXO” is so lazy and slapped together that to even review as a real movie feels like a form of legitimacy that I’m uncomfortable participating in. It looks like low-grade television and it montages its way through the plot, racing to a pointless conclusion.  Even though it’s available to watch free on Netflix, your 90 minutes are better spent scrolling through their selection for something else.

Grade: F 

Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Feb-2017