Alien Covenant

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Alien Covenant is the second film in the prequel Alien series and the 6th film considered to be a part of the original canon of Alien films.  (This is a direct reference to the now defunct Alien vs Predator series which licenses the use of the Xenomorphs from the original films, I should also state that Aliens have also been in comic books and various other media ventures so the property itself has been very profitable.)  The continuation of the series picks up after the events of Prometheus which saw the film return to its original suspense/mystery roots.  This shift allowed for new questions to be asked and answered of the original series as well as make use of modern advances in film technology to build the world to be visually stunning.  Prometheus did well at the box office setting up director Ridley Scott nicely for his plan to make multiple prequels and sequels.  Alien Covenant picks up about 10 or 11 years after the events of Prometheus and follows the attempted colonization of the planet Origae-6.  This film seeks to add further depth to the Alien Universe and continue telling the origin story of the Xenomorphs and their creators the “Engineers”.

A few words about Alien:  Covenant:

  1. Characters are flat – There is not much character development at all in this installment of Alien.  While the characters have an assumed backstory, exposition that is explicitly stated in the movie does little to provide depth to the characters themselves.  It does not help that in many cases the characters are making stock horror movie decisions, such as always choosing to split up rather than work together.  At one point in the movie, the idea of them continuously splitting up becomes a little comical as one character will be found dead, and the remaining characters still assign separate tasks for each other to complete.  The setups for Alien carnage comes off a little convenient.
  2. Not many Xenomorphs – In this movie while the Xenomorphs (traditional Alien creatures from these films) are prominently displayed, at times their presence did not feel necessary.  The central conflict involved them, however, they were not the central villain.  This made seeing them feel a little empty or one note.  In many cases, it seemed as if they only showed up to ratchet up the immediate tension rather than because they were a necessity to the story.
  3. Two much fassbender – It is not a spoiler to say that Michael Fassbender plays two roles in this movie.  While his acting is solid and interesting to watch, at one point he’s doing scenes with both characters together.  These scenes were at least a little bit overwrought.  I found myself wondering what the ultimate purpose of these scenes were and don’t ever know that it was revealed.  Seeing him “mentor” himself came off hokier than I believe it was intended to be.
  4. Not much real story development – Prometheus introduces the characters of the “engineer” or the beings that humans suspect created them.  In Alien Covenant, the engineers have a brief moment but their story is not really expanded upon.  The questions raised about them in Prometheus seemed to be discarded in order to create a different movie.
  5. Visually Appealing – Much like Prometheus the use of wide shots in this movie did much to establish the contrast between the small humans exploring the vast universe.  Many of the shots are breathtaking on the big screen, which in this format does a great job of making the viewer feel small as well.

Overall, this movie did very many traditional “Alien” things.  There are Xenomorphs, space tension, action, air locks, acid blood, running, screaming and dying.  However, this film eventually ends up just being another installment of Xenomorphs killing humans.  While the reasoning for the existence of Xenomorphs is a little clearer, the film ultimate does little to expand the mythology of the Alien universe.  I would still love to see a movie that does more to expand this backstory, much like Prometheus began to do.  This is a solid summer movie, but ultimately I left the theater feeling like something was missing.  Do not bring your kids.  2.5 of 5 stars.

 

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The Strain (Seasons 1 and 2)

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The golden age of television continues as networks attempt to double down on programming that demands the audience to suspend disbelief in an effort to push the limits of storytelling.  While there is no shortage of post apocalyptic stories in the world of television from ‘The Walking Dead’, and ‘Fear the Walking Dead’, to ‘The Last Ship’, ‘The Strain’ is an interesting take as it is a slow burn of development that views a potentially world ending plague from the ground level.  Created by Guillermo Del Toro, ‘The Strain’ is the tale of vampires taking over the world by force beginning with New York City.    This is told through the eyes of two CDC doctors who mistake the effects of vampire poisoning for an unknown virus.  Their research plus the plotting of the actual vampires is what sets forth the events of the show.

A few thoughts about ‘The Strain’:

  1. Intriguing premise – In the first season the story unfolds slowly with much mystery.  It is obvious that the first episode was filmed and produced with great care.  As the story unfolds and the “plague” begins to spread the viewer becomes engrossed in the questions raised by the plot that are purposely left to unfold as the show continues.
  2. Unsteady plot – These questions, however, are only answered at a strangely unsteady pace.  At times the story takes strange turns that initially appeared to be deliberate however as the series continues it becomes obvious that being deliberate is not something this show does well.  From the strange and untimely love triangles to the fluctuation between being a fantasy show vs. science fiction it becomes hard to understand how the story is being told.  While some will read this and posit that perhaps it is in both genres, it would seem that the story would have been best serviced by firmly placing itself in one lane or the other.
  3. Poorly written – From the horribly contrived dialogue to the flat out nonsensical decisions made by some of the characters at times an otherwise fine show left the viewer puzzled.  The show is based on a novel by Guillermo Del Toro who originally envisioned this as a television series but was unable to garner interest until it was completed as a novel.  This originally for television novel turned television series, feels at times lost in its own creation.  At times bearing the gravitas of a work with high ideas and thought provoking questions about humanity and at other times devolving into a puzzling mess of blood and tears.
  4. Unlikable characters – Not all of the characters are unlikable.  This would be an appropriate time to note that perpetual typecast character actor Kevin Durand has a main role as a exterminator turned vampire slayer.  (He is a friendlier version of the darryl  character (from the Walking dead) of this series)  It is nice to see him play a protagonist for once as well as be able to see him do more than simply look menacing on screen.  Outside of him many of the other characters have problems of likability.  This show seems to double down on the “flawed” character.  Some of them are so flawed they are difficult to root for as they continuously get in their own way.  There is a child character in this show that rivals the Carl character (from the walking dead) in terms of nonsensical rationale.  Nonsensical enough that it could cause a viewer to actively root for a child to die as he continuously leads other characters to their demise.
  5. Interesting take on vampires – While preserving some of the commonly accepted beliefs about vampires such as aversion to silver and sunlight this show paints an entirely new picture of these mysterious demons. (words of this writer not the show)  For instance people who are attacked by these vampires are shown as being infested with parasites (worms to be specific) that actually change their biology.  This new biology includes a “stinger” which extends out of the mouth of the vampire that opens to reveal teeth to suck out the blood of its victims.  This leads to the next point.
  6. Unnecessarily gory – The choices made by the creators to depict vampires in this way makes for some excessively gory scenes.  This show is in the 10pm Sunday slot on FX, and it takes full liberties with its abilities to be as gory as a cable television show can be.  With graphic deaths of humans and vampires alike,  horror fans and those who like gory movies will enjoy a nice treat without going to the theater.  However for those squeamish viewers who do not like squirmy worms wriggling literally everywhere inside and outside of people as well as red and white (vampire) blood liberally spilled everywhere, gratuitous head shots and copious amounts of machete/swordplay (for the sake of decapitation only for the most part) this may be a bit much.

At first glance this post may lead you to believe that this would be a lowly rated show in the opinion of the writer.  However despite its many glaring flaws the show was perfect for binge watching and is pretty entertaining.  Currently the first two seasons are available on Hulu and as of this post the third episode of the third season has aired on FX.  Definitely not a show to watch with your kids, at all.  3 of 5 stars.

The Netflix Chronicles: Stranger Things

Stranger Things

Yet another foray into original programming, and yet another intriguing story told via Netflix.  ‘Stranger Things’ uses a familiar framing device of the 80s kid friendly adventure story a la “E.T.” and “The Goonies” to tell a complex and at times terrifying tale of mystery with elements from such sci fi television hits as “The X-Files” and “Fringe”.

A few thoughts about ‘Stranger Things’:

  1. Deliberate Pacing – Using the font from fantasy board games, fantasy novels, and sci fi novels of its day, each episode is named as a chapter.  This is appropriate since the pacing of the show unfolds like it is being read rather than watched.  It may seem surprising that the show is able to be told in only 8 “chapters”, however in an age of binge watching this is satisfying for viewers who will watch the entire season in less than three sittings.  While slow at times, it never seemed like it was slow without purpose.  Each action taken by the main characters, as well as in some cases the side characters all connect for a greater purpose of skillful story telling.
  2. Good use of character placement – The pacing of the story puts the characters in the right place to set the tone of each scene.  Whether it be comic relief, tension, or adventure, the right characters are put in front of you when the pace needs to be managed.  This show has a lot of characters but is able to show all of them without feeling crowded.
  3. Excellent character development – Character placement lends nicely to well done character development.  As the story unfolds, the characters blossom and their motivations make sense and are seamless.  The viewer roots for the protagonists and against the antagonists, with reason.  Even the complexity of the characters is done sensibly.  The characters themselves show a combination of excellent writing and acting.
  4. Great acting -From youngest to oldest every actor in this film is carrying their fair share of the weight.  Including a surprisingly heartfelt performance from Winona Ryder, who becomes a concerned mother and seamlessly goes from restrained to unhinged in a way that made her character both relate able and believable.  She is only eclipsed by the 12-year-old fairly newcomer Millie Bobby Brown who is the key to much of the mystery.  Much of her acting is done through facial expressions rather than spoken lines.   This makes for a difficult job for a pre-teen however Brown does it with the ease of a seasoned veteran.  Matthew Modine had probably the least complex role, and was also the least satisfying performance however it was interesting to watch him play the villain.
  5. At times terrifying – For those expecting this to be exactly as the 80s kid friendly adventure stories were, this movie definitely pushes the boundaries of sinister, creepy, and at times straight up horrifying.  While children are at the center, or off center of this film, this is no children’s tale.  At times even the viewer who penned this post found himself hiding behind the blanket waiting for the tension to ease to the terrors to dissipate.

This is a good show.  While enough has been written about the “80s homage” this show does not alienate those who may not be fans of the period piece.  With solid writing, acting, and plot, Stranger Things is definitely another hit for netflix.  You can watch it with your older children, at least 13 years of age, younger than that are probably going to be a little frightened.  4 of 5 stars.

Suicide Squad

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DC studios continues to make attempts to establish franchise super heroes beyond the Christopher Nolan batman series.  With the highly anticipated “Justice League” in the works DC studios continues to trail behind Marvel studios with regards to quality of product as well as fan interest.  Enter Suicide Squad, a less widely known (among casual fans) DC property that brings together a group of “meta-humans” to fight against threats to the US government.  On literal paper (in the comic books) this worked because of the comic’s commitment to maintaining that these were indeed villains bound only by self preservation rather than any inherent need to do good for goodness sake.  (you better watch out)  On film, this translated as a ragtag bunch of antiheroes with hearts of gold who maybe, just maybe would make a friend in the process of doing a good deed.

A few thoughts about Suicide Squad:

  1. A solid performance from Will Smith – Will Smith leans into his role as Deadshot an antihero hit man who only cares about the welfare of his daughter.  He is funny, at times serious, and all in all refreshing to watch as he breaks from his typical character archetype.  Seeing Will Smith play an ensemble player in a movie that did not necessarily revolve around him was a definite break from the norm.
  2. Clunky pacing – This movie was the victim of some second guessing from the studio after the successful release of “Deadpool”.  At times it was easy to spots the portions of the film that had been updated to fit a more silly tone.  However this happened at the cost of a well paced film with any clear intentions.  As the tone shifted wildly from serious to fun, to grave, and at times ridiculous, it could be easy to forget where the viewer was at any given scene.
  3. Strange villain – Not like “Dr. Strange”, but strange as in strangely placed.  This villain at times seemed to be overly powerful for this group as a first obstacle.  The foot soldiers seemed to be placed in the film as a low level enough challenge to showcase the powers of the protagonists.  This felt very plot device-y.  However the way the team came together seemed to indicate that there will be other adventures and obstacles for the team to face in future films.
  4. Suicide Squad felt like “antiheroes” – In some cases the poison was taken out of the fangs of these villains.  The Suicide squad was meant to be a group of dangerous super criminals who were only released to do the government’s bidding.  At times they felt more like the superhero response to the expendables.  The decision was clearly made to soften these criminals to make them “likable” for the audience. This was done at the cost of complexity to the characters, making some of them seem like flat stock pieces of a typical “team” movie.
  5. Off screen backstory – This film, much like “Batman V Superman:  Dawn of Justice” leaves much assumption to the viewer.  There is some character development and plot that occurs off screen that clearly affects the decisions made by the characters on screen.  Except for some flashbacks to explain some of these decisions or feelings, it seems as much is left to the assumption of the viewer.  This film definitely expects you to know the backstory of batman and the joker.  Speaking of the Joker…..
  6. The Joker’s presence was not necessary – This movie did no real service to the Joker as a character as the viewer is not actually introduced to the Joker as a character with any depth.  While one should not immediately compare this Joker to the Joker from “The Dark Knight” there was definitely a sense that his presence in this movie was either thought necessary by studio executives or some sort of fan service.  This would have been a far more intriguing movie with just the Joker’s finger prints and bread crumbs in the film rather than the lackluster performance from Jared Leto.  (also plot wise, the Joker could have been anyone as far as his actual effect on the story)
  7. Better than most of the other DC movies – Except for the Christopher Nolan Batman films this movie stood out as a minor success for DC.  Not a disaster, while not a resounding success, this film was not as problematic as many of the other DC films in rotation.  (read: superman)

All in all, a nice distraction from the Washington DC summer heat.  Bring the teenagers, leave the young children at the house.  2.99 of 5 stars.

Jason Bourne

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After the 2012 release of the fourth film in the Bourne franchise without the involvement of Matt Damon, or two time Bourne series director Paul Greengrass 2016 reunited the pair with “Jason Bourne”.  When the Bond films were rebooted with Casino Royale in 2006 much credit was given to the Bourne franchise for bringing the spy genre movie back to earth by using a limited amount of technology and more hand to hand combat and general wits to overcome obstacles.  With the latest installment in the Bourne series an aged Matt Damon stars as an aged Jason Bourne who is still attempting to stay far away from the people that would either use him as a weapon or see him discarded.  While it was good to see another Bourne film with Matt Damon, this one was not necessarily a break from what we are used to seeing in these movies.

A few thoughts about Jason Bourne:

  1. Extremely convoluted plot – Leaving the theater a viewer can expect to forget the details of why anyone on screen is motivated to do anything they did.  Per usual in the Greengrass installments of this series the focus is more on the chase, and the stunts and creating a “thriller” feel.  Plot definitely feels secondary here, however for some this may be a plus as we explore in point 2.
  2. Very good action – The viewer can expect to be on the edge of their seat for some of the action scenes in this movie.  Including a very long car chase on the Vegas strip involving a SWAT truck, as well as a very intimate execution, this film did not hold back with the body count.  For viewers that want to see action on the big screen, this film delivers.
  3. Too much chase – Much of the previous installments in “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” involved the usual scenes of two people completing separate tasks to find each other but cut together in order to give the viewer the anxious feeling that one will find the other before the second outsmarts the first.  This makes the film feel very familiar in a tired way.  The viewer can almost always expect Bourne to come out on top which makes the actions of almost everyone else seem futile.
  4. Old Matt Damon – (and older Julia Stiles)  really worked for this film.  As far as thinking about how the character has aged and how being older would affect and haunt a former assassin, Old Matt Damon is perfectly cast in this role.  At times the viewer can expect to look at his weathered face on camera and completely believe that he is now the haggard former assassin that has never been able to find the peace that he seeks
  5. Extremely relevant subject matter – The plot in this film (albeit convoluted as mentioned before) still manages to hit on some of the fears that the US faces today.  By weaving a subplot (eventually mainplot) that involves a major social media company and dealing with the CIA’s desire to neutralize threats the film feels like it kept up with the trend even in terrorism, or what a threat would look like in 2016.  This made the film feel a little more relevant while it still leaned heavily on the action
  6. Flat women characters – There are two women characters in this movie.  One of them I would have loved to see more of, as her backstory is very relevant to the plot.  The other has a very flat performance that did not do the actress much justice.  In general the performances from the women, did not feel as if they were given much opportunity to be relevant.  This made the movie feel like it was still a little behind its time.
  7. Not sure if they need a sequel – It seems like they either need to let Jason Bourne rest or put him back to work in the CIA.  Either way, we cannot realistically expect him to keep engaging in this abusive relationship with black ops in the US.

Definitely not the movie of the summer.  However consider this the backup plan, if Star Trek Beyond, and Ghostbusters are sold out.  Leave your kids at home, there is a lot of senseless murder in this film.  2.5 of 5 stars.

 

Star Trek Beyond

 

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With the onset of the movie franchise, Marvel has led the way in terms of creating symphonies, after allowing individual instruments to shine on their own.  Not to be outdone Paramount has followed suit, not only cranking out several Mission Impossible movies in recent years but also with the Star Trek reboot series.  Star Trek Beyond is the third installment in this franchise however this movie spends far less time establishing characters or backstory assuming that you have watched the others.  This leaves plenty of time and room for a good story to be told.  If by any indication of the quality of this film, viewers can expect to see a few more installments of this particular franchise.

A few thoughts about Star Trek Beyond:

  1. Deliberate Beginning – For most Trekkies, the beginning of this movie will feel very familiar.  With a voice over from the captain the slow start of this film leads the viewer to feel as if there is something to anticipate that is just out of reach.  While it may strike some as boring, seasoned fans will recognize this familiar setup as a means to an end.
  2. Good homage to the original show/films – This being the first film that spent a significant amount of time on a planet rather than in space, many of the beats paid homage to the familiar off world episode.  Much of the magic of the new films come in the form of a new spin on familiar ideas, this felt very much as if the stakes had been raised.  Being outside of the ship felt like a natural progression for this series.
  3. Great ensemble acting – As Marvel has their avengers, Star Trek has its crew.  The characters felt very much as a team with their dialogue complimenting one another’s.  For Trekkies they will recognize and appreciate the rapport that this cast has gained working with one another.  The character development is also working well, as if you have seen the first two movies the place of the characters felt natural,
  4. Good pacing – Like the first film in the franchise this movie unfolded at a steady pace.  From a slow beginning, the action accelerated at a steady pace from beginning to end.
  5.  Corny at times (but in a good way) – The dialogue at times was a little corny.  However no audible groans or gasps.  This again felt like the corniness a Trekkie could come to expect from a Star Trek property.  Even the corniest lines did not necessarily feel forced.
  6. Very well directed. – Justin Lin did a solid job with this film.  Some may know him from his work with the Fast and the Furious franchise however while elements of that can be seen here, this has proven that with better source material he definitely rises to the occasions.  Beautiful wide shots of the ship, the space station, the planet, as well as great choices in terms of action shots and space combat.  This was a beautiful film in terms of just watching.
  7. Well written. – Simon Pegg wrote the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” which consisted of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End.  While those movies garnered plenty of fans this was Pegg’s first foray into a non comedy property.  If pacing and plot are any witness, many more writing opportunities will come Pegg’s way.
  8. Villain was a little lackluster – That is not to say that there wasn’t an element of danger or cool factor with the villain’s actual weapons of choice.  However the villain’s motivation was not entirely executed well.  In the end this did not matter, as he still had the desired effect of being the obstacle the crew had to join together to overcome.

Overall a solid summer movie, and a good Star Trek movie.  This is one your entire family will enjoy, go ahead and bring the kids.  4 of 5 stars.

Ghostbusters

 

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The Ghostbusters was a popular movie franchise in the 80s as well as a popular cartoon in the early 90s.  As Hollywood continues to monetize nostalgia, the newest Ghostbusters reboot was the subject of much scrutiny from idea to realization.  From the casting of an all female cast, as well as the backlash from what some argued was relegation of the black character to a menial role alongside her scientist team.  While some predicted that this movie would be crushed under the weight of its own expectations (read hype) Ghostbusters was a surprisingly enjoyable movie that lived up to the originals.

A few thoughts about Ghostbusters:

  1. Very funny – In the first act the jokes were coming at almost a machine gun pace.  This movie leaned heavily on one liners and dialogue humor, there were many visual gags however the trailers showed many of them.  What the trailer did not necessarily capture was the clever banter among the members of the team.
  2. Kate McKinnon was awesome – At one point early in the movie it seemed that Kate McKinnon would run away with the movie as the breakout star.  She seemed to do for this movie what Melissa McCarthy did for Bridesmaids by bringing that very specific brand of weirdness that allowed the movie to have levels with its punchlines.
  3. It didn’t matter that they were women – There was a joke early in the movie that highlighted that these were women, however as the movie wore on there was nothing specific about them being women that made the movie any more or less of what it was.
  4. Great Chemistry – The movie seemed to operate in pairs mostly, there was banter between Mckninnon and Wiig, McCarthy and Wiig, McKinnon and Jones, and only a few times were there opportunities for all four of the women to crack jokes together on screen.  This measured approach allowed for the comedy to breathe a little more and not bombard viewers with four individually funny woman attempting to steal the show.  The chemistry made the movie seem like there was room for all of them to be funny successfully together
  5. Didn’t take itself too seriously – Many times the movie leaned into the silliness of the plot which allowed viewers to enjoy the premise that much more.  Where the original movies went in a more adventure direction with comedy, this film leaned more on the comedy with adventure as the backdrop.
  6. Leslie Jones fit right in – while some were upset about Jones not being cast as a scientist, as the movie wore on, it didn’t seem to matter as much as they were all equals.  Jones was funny, however she was not so zany that it felt shucky or jivey.  Even the most questionable parts of her characterization (surmised by some from a trailer) made sense.  She was enjoyable to watch.
  7. Unnecessary and gratuitous cameos – The cameos all felt a little forced.  They pretty much felt like they were obligated to put in the celebrities that they did.  It was done in a way to give each of them the spotlight that didn’t feel natural to the movie at all.
  8. Fun – fun just seemed to shine through the movie from the beginning to the end.  There was something about watching these four women that kept viewers glued to the screen as well as being interested in what they were doing and what would happen to them next.

This movie was genuinely enjoyable albeit not perfect.  However a perfect fun summer movie to keep you out of the sweltering heat.  Bring your kids, but be warned there is some light ghost terrors, however the older of your kids will be able to handle it.  3.5 of 5 stars.