Monday, May 22, 2017

[Review] Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott returns to the bleak and futuristic outer-world of the Alien franchise with Alien: Covenant, which operates as a sequel to 2012's Prometheus (a film that I liked more than most people did, it seems). The results are mixed, but this space excursion still has enough exhilarating elements to make it an engrossing cinematic experience in its own right.

Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Oram (Billy Crudup), Tennessee (Danny McBride), and synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) are the notables comprising a space crew aboard Covenant, a colony mission ship bound for planet Origae-6. But along the way (a very long way) they stop at a surprise planet. What initially looks like a habitable environment, turns into an absolute nightmare.

The film is a little slow-moving at first, but after the planet touchdown, it dives into a nerve-wrecking and grotesque tale of discovery with plenty of nasty run-ins with face-crushers and chest-busters. The alien attack sequences are frankly horrifying to watch, like squirm-in-your-seat horrifying. Amidst the journey, there are a couple head-scratching moments, some stilted dialogue, and uneven pacing that's as clunky as the spacecraft landings. But the thrills and visual splendor are undeniable--from the grandly stark scale of the settings, to the precise framing, to the aesthetic threads of mythology and zoology.

Narrative-wise, the film doesn't exactly cover uncharted territory, but what it does do really well is establish a scary-good antagonist. And honestly, you can't always say that about high-concept genre films nowadays. The cast is solid, too. Fassbender displays his restrained excellence, essentially playing two different roles. Waterston, while a bit bland, emerges as the emotional backbone of the duration. And then there's the highlight Danny McBride, amusingly being Danny McBride in space. Early on, he pulls out a bottle of whiskey to honor a fallen crew member, because of course he does.

So even though it's burdened by a few flaws and the weight of past comparisons, Alien: Covenant isn't a bad ride. It's truly an extraterrestrial gothic. A provocative rumination on gods and creation, humans and artificial intelligence, monsters and life.

( 7.5/10 )

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

[Review] A Dark Song

Mounting as the directorial debut of Liam Gavin, the Irish indie film A Dark Song is an utterly drab exercise in black magic horror. It's quite the epitome of a slow burn, but unfortunately it possesses more 'slow' than 'burn'.

After hiring an ornery occultist named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), the determined Sophia (Catherine Walker) purchases a big old house in the middle of nowhere--the type of place that "We Buy Ugly Houses" wouldn't even want to touch. The two use the home as place to conduct a dangerous and exhausting ritual in order for Sophia to get in touch with her son on the other side.

Unlike most horror films of this ilk, A Dark Song focuses more on the build-up and process of the ritual, rather than what happens after the ritual (aka the breakthrough). It's an interesting spin, but not the scariest or most exciting. The film is full of painstaking preparations and meticulous mediations that test the patience of both us and the characters. Talking to the dead, apparently it's a lot of work! Everything has to go perfectly. The list of details is practically longer Mariah Carey's tour rider.

But the film does nail it in the mood and atmosphere section. The ominous musical score scrapes against your nerves like an untuned violin. The scenic views of the strange skies and countrysides come as a breath of fresh air from the claustrophobic bleakness within the house. And the quick-cutting flashes of the supernatural during the film's climax are really unsettling.

So I appreciated the film's relentless commitment to its craft, even if it isn't entirely worth it in the end.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

[Review] Snatched

Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer are the goofy mother-daughter duo in Snatched, a vacation-gone-wrong film that unfortunately goes wrong itself.

After losing her job and getting dumped, the unabashed adventurer Emily and her extremely cautious mom Linda embark on an impromptu trip to Ecuador. The expected fish-out-of-water follies--or more specifically--American blondes-in-the-tropics follies ensue. But things get treacherous when the two vacationers get kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang of criminals.

It does come with a bit of self-aware humor, playing into ditzy and uncultured tourist tropes, even winkingly implying that the main characters might be worse than the actual kidnappers. With a tongue-in-cheek line, Emily says "We're not just white assholes." By the way, didn't The Chainsmokers recently say something similar? Anyhow, the self-poking doesn't necessarily make this raunchy comedy an appealing or enjoyable getaway. Schumer and Hawn totally have the potential to be a fun team, but the material they're given is so haphazard, ill-advised, and over-the-top in some of the worst ways. This is a case where the stars' series of promotional appearances on talk shows were funnier and more likable than anything in the actual movie.

The first 30 minutes or so aren't bad though, diving into some mother/daughter dynamics and humor that actually lands. (Okay, so one of the bits is a fart joke, but I laughed.) However, once the kidnapping plot kicks in, the film--aside from an amusing appearance from Christopher Meloni as an inept explorer--devolves into streaks of eye-rolling action, gross-outs, and crude humor, pushing things to the edge only to come off as a shallow romp of foreign country fears. I got the impression that this film could've been a lot better if it had gone in any other direction than the one chosen. I mean, not ANY direction, but you get what I'm saying. Like its characters, it probably should've just stayed put.

( 5/10 )

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

[Review] Small Crimes

Netflix Original films can be hit or miss. This year the streaming platform has released some great ones like Burning Sands and I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, and some dismal ones like The Discovery and whatever Adam Sandler has been up. Small Crimes falls somewhere in between.

Nikolaj "The Kingslayer" Coster-Waldau plays Joe, a disgraced ex-cop who gets released from prison, striving for a second chance and an opportunity see his daughters again. But trouble follows him just as much as he follows trouble, and he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole of corruption.

While its title is vague and indistinct, the film's dialogue and visual cues come across as a bit too on-the-nose for their own good--like the way the script rattles off clunky exposition of past events, or the scene where Joe grips an AA sobriety coin while he tosses back a couple shots at the bar. Still, it's an okay little crime drama and a mildly serviceable story of a botched attempt at redemption. It contains some surprisingly pulpy violence, messy dilemmas, and memorable performances from secondary characters--most notably from Macon Blair (Blue Ruin, Green Room, & director of the aforementioned I Don't Feel At Home...), who also serves as a co-writer here.

Nikolaj is competent enough in this shaggy role if you can forgive his Danish accent that often sneaks through. But compared to how great he is as Jaime Lannister in "Game of Thrones", he sometimes can seem sort of stilted and uncomfortable in other things, and this film is no exception. And if the filmmakers were trying to make his character sympathetic, well, it doesn't work. A lot of Joe's problems are of his own doing, and he pretty much effs over everyone he comes in contact with. But maybe that's the point. Some people are just too far gone, and redemption isn't even an option.

( 6.5/10 )

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

[Review] My Life as a Zucchini

The French-language film My Life as a Zucchini (also known as My Life as a Courgette) is an animated picture of a darker, sadder, more somber variety. But don't let that stray you away, because this Oscar-nominated film is truly a bittersweet gem in the rough.

We follow the young Courgette (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) as he moves into a foster home--the blue shadows under his eyes--an all-too-poignant form of baggage. We witness his ups and downs--from his bouts-to-bonds with a bully named Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), to his crushing on Camille (Sixtine Murat), a precocious new resident of the foster home. During the stay we also learn about the backstories of the other children, and in turn, wonder where they'll end up in the future.

Aesthetically, the film is molded with quirky, artful, and meticulously detailed stop-motion animation. The character designs are sort of Tim Burton-esque, think Frankenweenie but with a lot more color. There are some really cool-looking sequences throughout that display a childlike sense of wonderment, even amidst the melancholy tone and unfortunate circumstances in the story.

Emotionally, it's the type of film that'll cause you to well up within the first 10 minutes. Depressing, tender, and heartfelt all at once. "There is no one left to love us," one of the kids says. The narrative carries themes of belonging, lingering trauma, and the complicated push-and-pull between foster life and family life. It actually has a lot in common with an excellent indie film from 2013 called Short Term 12. All of the characters are so well-developed that we really get a significant hint of their personalities and feelings, even within the short amount of time we spend with them.

And I mean very short. In fact, the film's runtime barely eclipses an hour. My Life as a Zucchini is a small but moving, sad but charming film that leaves a big impact.

* 8.5/10 *

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