Alien Covenant

aliencovenantneoxeno

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.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogueone_onesheeta_1000_309ed8f6

Star Wars continues the story with its first big budget feature length spin-off.  ‘Rogue One’ bridges the gap between episodes 3 and 4 of the main canon and tells an adjacent story in the star wars universe.  While this story doesn’t assists main canon its primary goal is to flesh out the rich star wars universe.

A few words about “Rogue One: A Star Wars story”;
1.  Visually stunning – Every shot in this film was beautifully done.  Wide sweeping shots of spacecrafts flying and landing.  Full color landscape shots of planets and space battles.  Detailed graphics, an amazing blend of costume design recognized from the original trilogy coupled with advances in film technology made for a very appealing visual aesthetic.
2.  Paper thin plot – This film had the difficult task of going from one fixed point to another fixed point with little room for latitude in the storytelling.  This means the plot was very rigid and there was little room to develop the characters on screen.
3.  Weak character development – due to the weak plot, characters while having a backstory did not have quite the depth as those in the main canon.  This did not mean you do not care what happens to them, but rather your acquaintance with them is a bit rushed.  Individually there is little attachment, however being invested in the main canon and the mission of the characters in the film allows you to care about what they intend to accomplish.  This is enough to attach you to their fate as the film continues.
4.  War tone, very different – In no other Star wars film has there ever been a greater sense of the stakes at hand than in rogue one.  This film does an excellent job of reminding you that the rebel alliance and the galactic empire are at war.  This is war in which people are dying in order to accomplish their goals.  Not just dying offscreen or in a way that allows you to be shielded from the reality of death but rather death in a very realistic and palpable sense.  This tone is completely different from other Star wars films in this regard.  (That being said there are still jokes and it’s still a lot of fun at times)
5.  Great action – the battle scenes in this movie are brilliant.  Going back to the first point visually the space battles are easy on the eyes however even the blaster ground battles are very lengthy fast paced and enjoyable.  There is only one scene of light saber and force battle carnage, however it is well worth the wait and is especially satisfying.  Advances in film technology make battle scenes much more realistic and easily viewed.  It does not feel campy any longer, but like what you would imagine a futuristic space battle to be.
6.  Leans into tragedy – If the original series and prequels are the tragic tale of Anakin Skywalker then this film continues to tell a bit of a tragic tale.  That’s about all that can be said here without being a spoiler.
7.  Solid fan service ( cameos, lines, music) – while there is no scrolling text to begin the movie, there is plenty of fan service done here.  From the cameos, to the extremely well done CGI “cameos” to the music to the obligatory line stated in every single Star Wars film, this movie did fan service right and every moment was well received.
The movie started slow, but ended well.  It was an extremely solid movie that did an excellent job of expanding the Star Wars universe.  This was a tale told in the world of star wars that tells us that many more individuals made sacrifices for the rebel alliance than movies can be made.  This tells us that the Star Wars were filled with many more stories that could be told for years to come. (cha-ching says Disney)  You can bring your kids but it’s not the romp that the other films were so it may be a little intense for the youngest of children.  3.5 of 5 stars.

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-city-bending-179855

Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) receives its second film with Doctor Strange.  One of the lesser known heroes (as far as mainstream knowledge of superheroes go) Doctor Strange is a bridge for the MCU from the known villains, factions, and heroes to new and more “mystical” unknown villains, factions and heroes.  As the Avengers will need time to regroup and prepare for their eventual clash with Thanos, the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 and Doctor Strange will reset the stage for the coming conflict in “Avengers: Infinity War”.

A few words about “Doctor Strange”:

  1. Strange pacing (no pun intended) – there was no marking of the passage of time.  From the time doctor strange was in training to the time he mastered his craft seemed especially fast.  Some of this was explained by his superior intellect, however in some ways this felt like cheating.  This made portions of the movie feel rushed.  By the time we reach the main conflict, the film does not feel like it got to this point naturally.
  2. Benedict Cumberbatch played his role well, but did nothing new. – a spin on his typical take of being brilliant as is the case in most of his roles.  He was more arrogant than usual in this, but with a heart of gold as is standard with marvel heroes.  This shtick is pretty familiar coming from him, however what made it better was imagining his interactions with the rest of the folks in the MCU.  He will fit right in.
  3. Stark change in genre – Typically Marvel movies are action/adventure films with a touch of fantasy.  Sure there are portals, talismans, stones and other mcguffins however these are all typically more seasoning than sustenance.  Doctor Strange falls deeper into the category of Fantasy/Adventure, where much of the plot is driven by the mysticism.
  4. Excellent special effects – Imagine if all of the coolest portions of the movie ‘Inception’ that had to do with bending time and space were used over and over as a method of physical combat.  Between this, and the brilliant colors and time moving backwards, this film visually is stunning.  Watching these scenes was very enjoyable.
  5. Sets up for next phase well – This film does a good job of expanding the universe.  With some of rules set by what is established in Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange builds larger on this theme by setting rules in the “multiverse”.  Routinely using the portals they create and artifacts they use for battle, Doctor Strange gives a glimpse into where the MCU is going.  Much of the universe has been driven by physical actions and characters fighting back physical forces, however Doctor Strange doubles down on the mystical doors opened by Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy.
  6. Forgettable conflict – It almost didn’t feel like a conflict much as obligatory first level challenge for the new hero.  Even the bad guys weren’t completely fleshed out as much as they were placeholders standing in place as stereotypical movie conflict.  By the end of the film this becomes unimportant as what is most important is introducing a new direction for the MCU.
With all that being said, the biggest problem that this movie faced was that it didn’t necessarily need to be a feature length film.  Perhaps it would have been better served as a limited series on Netflix or as a backdoor pilot on Marvel’s Agents of Shield.  (although the budget cut would have affected the visual effects).  Overall a solid summer film, albeit opening in November which is always a breath of fresh air among mostly art films vying to contend in Oscar season.  Take your kids, but be warned there are a few scenes that may not be easily understood by young eyes.  However if they can handle Harry Potter this shouldn’t be a problem for them.  3 of 5 stars.

The Netflix Chronicles: Time Lapse

timelapse1.png

Typically Netflix is the perfect place to binge watch a television show.  However it is also a fine place to stumble across hidden gems.  Movie distribution has changed in this era of film making and while cream rises to the top in terms of the best movies being distributed by the traditional methods, streaming services like Hulu and Netflix are making room for all types of movies to be consumed by the masses.  Enter this independent film, which falls into the nontraditional distribution method category.  ‘Time Lapse’ is a film about three roommates who discover a method to view a snapshot of their lives 24 hours in the future.  As the film begins, the most obvious of “what would you do if knew the future?” questions are immediately answered.  However as the film continues it becomes all about decisions these characters are making because of their knowledge.  It is a slow burn thriller.

A few words about ‘Time Lapse’:

  1.  Understated acting – There are no real familiar faces in this film, which lends to its authenticity.  Here are three young people in a pretty baffling situation and their reactions seem to be pretty believable.  Watching the film a second time lends itself to really take note of the acting choices, which are important to the film’s conclusion.  It was the second viewing that really allowed the subtly of these choices to shine.
  2. Really solid premise – This is film based on time travel.  That being said, there is no actual travel in the movie.  It rather explores decisions people make when they have a peek into their future.  This allows for some pretty intense questions that the movie attempts to answer.
  3. Excellent deliberate pacing – This movie unfolds at a pace commiserate with the decisions the characters are making.  While at times the pace is slow and steady, even when the pace quickens it’s only enough to drive home the larger point or to further highlight the decisions the characters are making.  The movie at its “slowest” never feels slow because the viewer is waiting for the next decision to be made.
  4. Satisfying conclusion – Movies based in time travel, or time viewing have a tendency to fizzle out toward the end, unraveling and/or imploding on themselves.  This movie does not do that.  This writer in particular finished the movie than walked around his apartment wit his hands on his head saying “ahhhhhhhhahahahahahahaha”.  While this is not the typical descriptive language used to convey an ending, the point gleaned here should be that this movie follows its own time travel rules and concludes its story as it should.  This was enough to make the journey that much more enjoyable.

This is solid movie, especially for it not to be on anyone’s radar.  Before stumbling across it on Netflix, the writer cannot be certain that he would have even viewed this movie.  This is why it pays to rate everything you watch on Netflix.  This is a good, stay in and try to ride out hurricane matthew film.  Put the kids to bed first, as this isn’t particularly a gory or graphic movie however is some spurts of strong language and very adult themes.  4 of 5 stars.

 

The Strain (Seasons 1 and 2)

strain-cast

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

Suicide squad

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.